Who owns 'culture'?

No one owns 'culture' [i]: anyone with a viable theoretical proposal can contend for the right to determine that concept's fate. Not everyone agrees with this view. Throughout its century long struggle for academic respectability, anthropology has regularly insisted on its unique role as the proprietor of 'culture.' Its variety of approaches and feuding factions notwithstanding, it is this proprietary claim that unifies anthropology to an extent sometimes unrecognized even by its own (post modernist) practitioners. The history of anthropology has witnessed at least three important moments in the case for autonomous cultural phenomena based, first, on traditional ontological and methodological presumptions, second, on the hermeneutic turn, and third, on postmodern analyses of discourses and their influences. Historically, anthropologists cite two closely related bases for these proprietary presumptions. The first, which we shall not belabor here, hearkens to inevitably vague discussions about culture's autonomy (with various passes at making sense of the ontological foundations of that alleged autonomy). Cultural anthropologists have advanced such claims for a century, but Geertz' gloss on this topic is representative both in what it endorses and in the vagueness of the grounds for the endorsement. While advancing a host of claims about culture's ontological status (for example, (1) that culture is "ideational," (2) that it, nonetheless, "does not exist in someone's head," (3) that it has the same status -whatever that is -as a Beethoven quartet, and (4) that it is "public"), Geertz insists that "the thing to ask . . . is not what . . . [its] ontological status is." (Geertz 1973: 10 12.) Unfortunately for Geertz and cultural anthropology generally, any convincing case for the autonomy of culture must account for its relations to the things that constitute it. Moreover, because Geertz never relinquishes anthropology's scientific aspirations, the issue of clarifying such ontological questions....
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