...and sometimes peoples'. I'm reminded of a Scottish Nationalist graffito I saw years ago:

We Arre A People

and a fairly recent New Yorker cartoon by William Haefeli:

These really do have something to do with the last 50 years. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on ethnicities in Sarawak, and grappled unsuccessfully with the idea that the various constituent peoples were 'communities' in some corporate sense. This was long before Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities made such a formulation thinkable in anthropology, and was not well received by faculty of the time.

...and that puts me in mind of another bit of academic discomfort that I've been wrestling with for the last 44 years. At my Special Examination orals (1971), George Spindler listened carefully to my talk of Regional Systems and Northeastern North America and Nova Scotia, and then said: "I'd be really interested to know what your notion of culture is..."


I was dumbfounded, dumbstruck, and horrified to find that I had no answer for him for this, perhaps the very core question in anthropology's conceptual armamentarium. I spluttered out the lamest of replies, something about the classical definitions of the concept, and Spin mercifully let me get away with an unartful dodge of the real question he was asking. I've been worrying over the answer I should have given ever since, but I've come to realize that he presented me with the gift of a koan to carry with me and continue to puzzle over. Here's what I now think I should have had the wit and clarity to say:

Culture consists of shared interpretations of the surrounding world(s). An 'interpretation' is an empirical/symbolic/linguistic/physical mapping; 'shared' may approximate to 'agreed upon/identical', but isn't cookie-cutter, and is moderated by many variables: age, gender, social position...

One's integration into a cultural system is often a matter of degree, and there's always an internal mindspace in which one may entertain heterodox thoughts --or may maintain strict orthodoxy. The individual is an observer, an actor, a ratiocinator, fully capable of lying to others and to self. To a variable degree the individual is a calculator --of benefits to self, of rewards to altruism and deception: a choice-maker, an optimizer, a satisficer. Individuals are also cooperators, basing their actions in complex schemas that surely include analysis of benefits to self, but may also include other extra-personal motivations.

The picture I have of a living culture is of a landscape of mutually-aware actors with long-term histories of interactions, and with the means to assess novelty and each other's actions. Such a local landscape, defined outward from each individual, exists in a greater matrix, ultimately global but distance-attenuated (closer in space generally tantamount to more salient). Technologies (which cover a grand plethora of material and trans-material and immaterial human constructions) override/alter the influence of distance, but not uniformly for all individuals.

Pretty much any generalization about a culture and/or a person's actions will have situational exceptions; likewise, cultural prescriptions have workarounds and exceptions, and probably tales (perhaps cautionary) about exceptions to the supposed rules. There's generally wiggle room, often undocumented, in even the strictest systems. People generally cut slack for themselves and others.

Extracting an image or portrait of {culture} from the 'shared interpretations' is mostly a subjective activity on the part of the analyst/anthropologist, who must infer a lot from what informants relate (they can't be expected to be 'objective' about their own lives, or not reliably) and may have to traverse one or more languages/semantic universes. So the ethnographer crafts a story that fits the facts as they seem to be, and tries to be at least aware of the biases inherent in interpretation of others' (and one's own) accounts. There is no precise science of reportage or analysis, even in respect of one's own culture: so much of one's interpretation is consequent upon where one stands, literally and figuratively. That said, the analyst/ethnographer can produce reports that are USEFUL. The degree to which they can be considered to be authoritative rests on the consumer's/reader's understanding of AUTHORITY, and so is doubly subjective.

There's a lot tucked into that answer to Spin. I surely had all those notions in 1971, but didn't have courage of convictions or, perhaps, the glue to put them together. To a considerable degree it was the immersion in "fieldwork" in Nova Scotia that allowed me to develop such coherence as I did, but just as surely it took me a long time to realize that I'd made the integration --that I could plug my versions of people's stories into the model of culture/society I've sketched. I do wish that I'd been able to muster more and better consciousness of the above while I was teaching, and thus been able to be more coherent/less scattered... but perhaps the incoherence projected me into the information-centered second career, at what turned out to be JUST the right moment.