Working knowledge

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One of my teachers, Clyde Kluckhohn, used to say “every man is like all other men, like some other men, and like no other men.” (Of course he meant “person”—that was back when “man” had its original meaning, “person of either sex.”) Common humanity is overwhelmingly important; we are almost genetically identical across the species. Individuality accounts for much of the rest, and even identical twins can differ substantially. When we are “like some others,” we are often like them because of common experience, similar placement in a kinship system, or common work history rather than because of shared culture. Still, culture—one of the things that makes us “like some others”—is hugely important.

“Culture” is anthropologists’ shorthand for knowledge and behavior learned and shared in large groups. It allows people to satisfy their wants and needs—not always a good thing, since so many people want, and even seem to need, to harm their fellows.

This knowledge need not be a systematic, unified whole; it need not be completely or thoroughly shared. It is usually useful, but much of it seems elaborated for play, mere curiosity, and other “irrational” reasons, and much—possibly the biggest chunk—deals with defense against real or imagined threats from other human groups.

Most higher animals have society (communication, interaction, structure and all), but none has much in the way of culture. Songbirds usually learn much of their song repertoire, all intelligent social animals learn much of their social and food-finding behavior from their comrades, and apes and border collies can learn hundreds of words. But this is a far cry from even the simplest society’s roster of myths, religious beliefs, songs, games, and other complex forms. (For full discussion of theories of what culture is, the classic survey is Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952; for more recent thought, see Atran and Medin 2008:143-159.)

Culture is not mindlessly transmitted. It is, rather, negotiated, in endless ongoing dialogues (Bourdieu 1978, 1990). “Negotiate” is the perfect word, because it is from the Latin for “the opposite of leisure” (neg-otium). Creating culture is not easy and not always fun. Conflict and debate are the breath of cultural creation. More widely, it grows from interaction with the world, especially work and other everyday necessary practices. It is thus both highly accurate and highly embodied. It often exists at a rather less than totally conscious level (a good recent discussion of this is Lauer and Aswani 2009).

Similarly, in creating culture, a society summates small-scale ideas and coping tactics into grand strategies and shared knowledge systems. Every culture, even the simplest, encodes an incredible amount of knowledge. Much of this is expert knowledge. The simplest hunting band has to know the habits of game animals, the time of ripening of fruits and seeds, the distance to water holes, and every rock and sand dune in the territory they cover. Larger cultural groups, especially if they possess writing, can amass unlimited information.

Why bother? What good is culture, that it should have evolved and become so dominant in Homo sapiens?omoHomfucit That question was dramatically answered in 2010, when the relevant theorists organized a contest to see what model of social learning would allow the most and fastest adaptive learning in a complex situation. All the social learning and evolution theorists assumed that the best would be a mix of social learning (culture) and independent learning and original thought. They were all beat into the ground by a couple of graduate students, D. Cownden and T. Lillicrap, with a model assuming almost pure cultural learning and virtually no originality. Their strategy “relied nearly exclusively on social learning and weighted information according to the time since acquisition” (Rendell et al. 2010:208). In other words, abject conformity beats thinking every time, especially if you seek out the latest stuff to conform to. Teenagers normally live that way, and apparently they are not as wrong-headed as their elders usually think.
Culture and Other Social Emergents

Sociologists from Comte through Durkheim have defined their field as the study of “emergents.” Society emerges from human interactions. It cannot be predicted from examining individuals. “Emergents” seem mystical in some sociological writings, but are perfectly straightforward and sensible things.

They arise from ordinary interaction by actual people. Max Weber put it strongly: “Interpretive sociology considers the individual and his action as the basic unit….the individual is also the upper limit and the sole carrier of meaningful conduct…. In general, for sociology, such concepts as ‘state,’ ‘association,’ ‘feudalism,’ and the like, designate certain categories of human interaction. Hence it is the task of sociology to reduce these concepts to ‘understandable’ action, that is, without exception, to the actions of participating individual[s]” (Weber 1946:55). On the other hand, analyzing culture makes us look very hard at how emergents can take a life of their own. They may persist over thousands of years, as the English (and even the Indo-European) kinship system has, being reinforced by usage in every generation. Individual reduction works fine for humans, and indeed is necessary, so long as one is reductionist about thoughts and acts but not about rules and institutions (Weber 1946).

Societies must not only deal with emotions and mistakes, but must cope with the “emergent” problem of managing all of them in interpersonal situations. Communication, interaction rituals (Goffman 1967), social structure, and other classic emergents are, in part, coping mechanisms.

Emergents can arise in several ways. Simplest are people’s conscious and deliberate decisions baed on the obvious needs of society. Since people are so compulsively social, they will grudgingly or willingly be generous, self-sacrificing, and cooperative. Generosity would obviously make no sense to lone individuals. Mountain lions are not generous.

Indeed, all of interpersonal morality is a social emergent. Just as morals would not exist without an evolutionary platform (see above), morals would be literally unthinkable outside of a self-consciously maintained social group. A mere aggregation would not do the job.

Other, more complex social emergents appear over time from repeated interaction. This applies especially to the highly structured emergents: leadership hierarchies, kinship systems, social role systems, and the like.

Some emergents actually evolve. We have seen that language did so, and it is clearly an emergent: the communication device proper to a highly intelligent animal living in large social groups. Others appear from the emotional life of groups. Durkheim (1995) focused on the intense emotions aroused by ceremonies and rituals. In Malaysia in 1971 my wife and I attended the Hindu Sun God festival. Over a hundred thousand people were there, and almost all were in some state of trance. Though we were not Hindus or even particularly religious, we were caught up in what Durkheim called “the effervescence,” and went into trance states ourselves, dramatically altering our perception of events. Durkheim traced religion to such effervescence, seeing this as necessary to motivate people to engage in moral and social-structural emergents.

James Surowiecki (2005, and see below) writes of another kind of benevolent mass emergent: the way that networked interaction can bring individual contributions together to produce a superior result through spontaneous cooperation, as in Wikipedia. Wikipedia, in fact, is quite an amazing emergent. However, people must remain ignorant of what the rest are thinking for this to work well; otherwise they try to conform to what they think the group thinks (Mojzisch and Schulz-Hardt 2010). On a much smaller scale, when Timothy Gowers wanted a math proof—a more elegant proof for a theorem proved previously by sheer computer force—he and his group set up “blogs and a wiki” (Gowers and Nielsen 2009:879) and appealed to the math world. The first three to check in were a math professor at the University of British Columbia, a high school teacher in Arizona, and a mathematician at UCLA. They had their proof in six weeks.

Truly, the human animal is absolutely amazing and can do anything—but only when individuals can be mobilized in some endeavor. Forcing them, using top-down administration, or even allowing conformity to take over, shuts down such efforts. The Sun God festival was a wonderful experience, and wikis are useful, but there is an uglier side of mass response: mob rule and fascist “triumph of the will.”

The most revealing type of social emergents are unintended consequences. Traffic jams result from everyone trying to get somewhere as fast as possible. The faster they try to go, the slower they actually go. Warmongering regimes often result from people seeking security. As the proverb says, “people who give up freedom for security deserve neither and will get neither.” The meltdown of the American economy in 2008 resulted from too many people trying to get rich quick. The more they tried to get rich, the poorer they got, because of the emergent structure of the market. All these represent slightly different routes to the same thing: a result opposite to what was intended.

A system exists to the extent that individual units, interacting in a bounded environment, affect each other by their actions, and are all affected similarly by perturbations. The electric system of my house is a good simple example: It is really a lot of electrons rushing around, and only the similarity of one electron to another keeps it going. If I throw the main breaker, the system comes to a halt. A language is similar. It exists only through the actions and interactions of a lot of individual speakers. It has a strange life of its own. A lot of tiny individual decisions to forget about the subjunctive mood have noticeably changed English within my lifetime. A lot of tiny individual decisions have elevated “like” from a preposition to a conjunction and an all-purpose filler. Both these changes took place in spite of desperate rearguard efforts by educators.

All this analysis of how emergents actually occur renders unnecessary the mysticism of “self-organization.” This has been invoked by New Agers and by some anthropologists (e.g. Escobar 2008). Actually, of course, systems cannot self-organize. They do not have a “self.” They are not conscious individuals. In fact, they usually do not exist at all (outside of scientists’ labs); most of the systems we speak of in social science are analytical abstractions or models, invented by scientists to make managing data easier. Even a real system, like a language, does not organize itself. Its organization is an emergent effect of thousands of speakers making tiny decisions.

The “chaos,” undefined and unspecified “nonlinear” effects, and other nonsense beloved of popular writers are even more mystical. No, a butterfly flapping its wings over the Amazon can not cause a tornado in Kansas, by any normal meaning of “cause,” and applying such idiocy to human systems—consciously planned as they are—is even more ridiculous than applying it to the weather. Chaos theory does have its place, but that place is not in explaining deliberately planned or even unplanned behavior. Nonlinear effects within systems are standard and common, but they follow from causes that can be specified. In human systems, they are caused by particular people doing things they want to do.

To take an example from my previous life in fisheries development, fish stocks often collapse suddenly and “without warning,” giving the appearance of a chaotic response. In fact, what happens is that the fish are overfished till their schools reach a threshold, beyond which there are simply not enough fish left to allow them to resist predation, find mates, and get whatever social stimulus they need. This is nonlinear, but it has a normal real-world explanation that does not require special math or New Age mysticism.

Social systems cannot always be predicted from individual choices, because of the unintended and intended emergents noted above. However, no human system can be understood without understanding the initial choices, actions, and interactions of its members.

Culture arises naturally and inevitably from the aggregation of humans, but neither a given culture nor the universals of culture could be predicted by a Martian looking at a bunch of isolated individual humans—especially the humans of 200,000 or 500,000 years ago, when culture was just beginning to develop. Culture is, in turn, made up of many emergent systems that interact and influence each other. Organizing and structuring principles spill over from one system to another (Lévi-Strauss 1962).

Consider the most universal and well-studied cultural institution: kinship. All higher animals have families, recognize closeness of kinship, avoid incest, care for and even sacrifice for their own, and so on. No other animal has kinship systems: formal structured systems with named categories for siblings, elders, descendents, and collateral kin (what we in English call uncles, aunts and cousins). All human societies have these. Leslie White (1949, 1959) used to maintain that the expression “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” is ridiculous because monkeys don’t recognize their parents’ brothers. This goes too far; they do recognize their mothers’ brothers (though apparently not their fathers’ brothers). But he was right in saying that monkeys don’t have words for “uncles.”

Human societies not only have words, they differ in the terms used. Hawaiian and Nuu-chah-nulth persons call uncles by the same word they use for fathers. Chinese has different terms for father’s elder brother, father’s younger brother, mother’s elder brother, and mother’s younger brother. Other cultures lump one’s father’s brother with one’s own brother. There are reasons for these differences. Such differences in usage are inconceivable to a monkey.

Kinship, in turn, influences the rest of society. We extend kinship terms to spiritual and academic fathers (Kronenfeld 1996), fictive siblings, and so on. English split off the old plural “brethren” to cover churchmates, while coining a new plural for actual brothers. More recently, a totally new form, “sistren,” has been added to the language for female churchmates. Given the tendency of humans to systematize, some day “children” may be restricted to church usage, with “childs” appearing in other contexts.

Religion is another universal formal system. Every culture has its own list of supernaturals, its own prayers, its own elaborately structured ceremonies and rituals, and its own set of beliefs about spirits, the afterlife, and creation. No nonhuman animal has anything like this. All the above make sense only in a large group—one where face-to-face contacts are far from the only important contacts.

On the other hand, the total society of ants and bees is not for us. One can isolate two kinds of emergents: the human type (Wimsatt 2007, esp. 241-312), and the ant kind in which the individual is totally subsumed into a gestalt.

Cultural emergents—equivalent to interaction ritual and other social emergents—include kinship systems, religions, moral codes, plant and animal taxonomies, and work habits. All these and many more are present in every culture and every human group, but they would not and could not exist without culture. Cultural plans cross-cut, cross-connect, and cross-reinforce. Sometimes they cross-contradict. There is something wonderfully human about the schemes that folktale tricksters like Old Man Coyote and Hoja Nasruddin are always concocting. Too clever by half, the tricksters fail because they trap themselves in their absurdly complicated plots.
Society and Culture

This begs the question of how to define “society” and “culture.” As Bruno Latour wryly remarks, there are only two problems with social science: “the word ‘social’ and the word ‘science’” (Latour 2005:2; see also Sewell 2005). Latour has directed his mercilessly skeptical gaze to culture too: “A culture is simultaneously that which makes people act, a complete abstraction created by the ethnographer’s gaze, and what is generated on the spot by the constant inventiveness of members’ interactions” (Latour 2005:168). Indeed, these are three common anthropological usages of the word “culture,” each with major problems. Similarly, just as Peter Worsley (1997) pluralized “knowledges” in talking about different cultures, Latour (2004) has pluralized “sciences.”

The problem is that “society,” “culture,” “science,” and other such words, including things like “experience” (see above), “ecosystem,” and even “reality,” are analytical abstractions that have problematic relationships with the real things they denote. I can show you a hunk of dirt, but I can’t show you a hunk of reality. I can show you cultural products amd cultural knowledge, but I can’t show you a hunk of “culture.”

I thus follow Latour (among others) in defining “society” as a summation of personal ties, associations, and interactions, plus the emergent structures that arise therefrom. Commenting on Latour (and others), Arturo Escobar has written: “If what some theorists are arguing is correct, the network concept would be a reflection of a more substantial reinterpretation of how social reality comes into being; the notions of actor network, assemblages, flat ontology, and flat sociality push one to think about the real in relational and contingent, not structural and law-driven, terms” (Escobar 2008:11). “Flat” here means something like “grassroots”; these things are flat in lacking a hierarchical pyramid. Similarly, we may define culture as a convenient shorthand term for the more or less widely-shared knowledge and behavior that people learn from others in their society.

Structure and “law,” or at least rules of thumb, must necessarily appear as genuine emergents from any interaction of such a Kantian animal as Homo sapiens. Networked interactions produce relationships and structures, as surely as songbird interactions produce songs and nests. One need only point to the universality of grammatical rules, kinship systems, religious ceremonies, and rules of artistic composition. The difference is not that culture view gives us no structure, but that it gives us dynamic, fluid structures-in-process rather than frozen crystalline arrays.

On the other hand, cultural products may be very real and very thoroughly frozen in long-lasting forms. Even birds turn fluid interactions into physical, long-lasting, carefully crafted physical structures: nests. Humans create whole cities and landscapes. The city of Rome may be a mere reflection of interactions, and may be evanescent in the very long term, but it is a cultural artifact that has lasted, grown, and become more massive over 3,000 years. Its accumulated structures, including ones that have survived 2,000 years like the Colosseum, enormously affect activity and cognition—and not just in Rome. For millennia, they have both constrained action and powerfully stimulated reflective thought all over the world. Culture has also inscribed on the earth the Great Wall, the rice terraces of Luzon, the Maya pyramids, and the US interstate highway system, among other things. Ideas like the Chinese plans for rice terracing and the European world’s fondness for monocrop plantation agriculture lead to whole landscapes that are totally culturally constructed and totally unique to one cultural belief system. Even the patterned burning of roving hunter-gatherer bands is visible from space. Such things give culture a certain “stickiness.” However accidental are the beginnings of a cultural schema, the ends may profoundly affect millions of acres of land over thousands of years.

…And Is There a Social System?

The phrase "social system" may imply much more than it really should. A social system is like a rickety old wagon, not like a Lexus. Still, it has its functioning parts and its creaky motion.

The mechanisms by which social facts and individual lives are connected include psychological and economic ones. In the words of Jon Elster (1993:57), one approach is “to understand economics through social psychology and social psychology through history."

Social and sociocultural systems are made up of individuals. Only individuals think and act. Thanks to their mirror cells and their compulsive social needs, they interact a very great deal, imitate others, deduce others’ rules and principles for acting, and thus come to resemble each other. But this is a complicated process, not the simple learning-by-imitation of old-time anthropology books.

Even within a family, if it is at all sizable, there are dyads, triads, tetrads…. I have a very different relationship with each of my children, and they have complicated relationships with each other—increasingly complicated as the number of spouses and grandkids increases. Families relate as groups; family members relate one-on-one to individual nonmembers. Societies, from the family on up, are built of such building blocks: individuals in dyadic and small-group relationships (Goffman 1959; Satir 1983).

Neighborhoods may be tightly defined, multistranded communities, as in the old peasant villages and other small-scale societies, or they may be as faceless as an American suburb where no one knows anyone else.

In the modern world, one’s networks and communities tend to be dispersed. I am not only more apt to know anthropologists in Singapore and Mexico than to know my neighbors two blocks away, but I can relate to them more easily. We share a common culture of interest. There are worldwide networks of birdwatchers, train lovers, stockbrokers, mercenary warriors, potato farmers…. A potato farmer in Scotland will probably know at least some potato farmers in Peru better than he knows any Scottish anthropologists. And someone who is an anthropologist and a birdwatcher (like me) will be able to find friends anywhere, but in networks that are almost nonoverlapping, and have quite different cultuers.

This is not a new thing, or a result of globalization. History teaches that highly mobile groups like sailors, soldiers, traders (think Marco Polo), artists, musicians, diplomats, and cooks have been traveling the world for millennia, running into comrades everywhere. A Phoenician sailor no doubt communicated just fine with an Indian one, once they found a common language, but no doubt had trouble communicating with a date farmer, even though “Phoenicia” means “date land.”

A human society may be a tightly integrated thing lasting since time immemorial, or little more than a lot of very different individuals who desperately need social contact. These loners construct their own mental representations of the society they long for.

At the borders of every society, there are people—often many of them—who are “sort of members.” They are half in, half out, or otherwise on the fringe. Some are deviants, but most are just people on the borders. For example, the Yucatec Maya world I study is defined by the Yucatec Maya language. But most Yucatec Maya speak Spanish, and a large number are far more fluent in Spanish than in Yucatec. They are thus “sort of” Maya and “sort of” Spanish-speakers, with mixed knowledge pools and intermediate cutural status. The Maya often call them “Mayeros”: roughly, people who do Maya things and speak varying amounts of Maya but are not 100% sharers in the old culture. This label is notoriously negotiable.

There are endless wars over the label “American.” Fox News hosts and commentators limit the term to those who are white, Anglo-Saxon, more or less fundamentalist religiously, and conservative according to whatever is the current definition of that extremely polysemantic word. Others have other definitions.
E Pluribus Unum

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