chapter  1
33 Pages

The anthropocentrism of ‘culture’: A critique of humanist discourse

The social sciences begin from the fact of culture; they do not explain it to us. Though cultural sociology, for example, defines itself centrally in terms of the study of culture, it tends to treat culture as an ontological given, as the condition of human existence, rather than as a contingent historical, discursive, epistemic category; as culture rather than ‘culture’. Thus culture is extolled as the prior enabling condition of socio-anthropological knowledge. What I want to suggest, however, is that this epistemic formation – indeed the whole modern episteme of which the human sciences are an active element – is actually deeply implicated in the constitution and reconstitution of the ontological vision of the world bound up with ‘culture’. Why does this matter? It matters because this approach to ‘culture’ has rendered social science insensible to the ways in which this category, the ontological organization of the world to which it is integral and the practices in which it is realized, have profoundly conditioned and structured not merely the possibilities of social thought, but also the possibilities of lived social order. My aim in this chapter, therefore, is to undertake a critical analysis of the work of the ontological architecture of ‘culture’ in shaping the social scientific project and sociology in particular. This will not be my only target, however, for it would make little sense to single out ‘culture’ for critical treatment without doing the same for ‘society’. Of course, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ have somewhat different etymologies and have by no means had identical semantic or theoretical histories. But it is possible to remain sensitive to these specific etymological trajectories while recognizing that at the level of the fundamental ontological framework of modern social science, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ have not only become increasingly interchangeable in the wake of the cultural turn, but were always residually so in the logic of their othering of ‘nature’. Perhaps

counter-intuitively, this is underlined by the fact that these terms have often been deployed as the banners of opposed theoretical and methodological positions, and used as rubrics for conflicting conceptions of the social/ cultural. For in these controversies, though ‘culture’ and ‘society’ often claimed to refer to very different kinds of domain, only their basic underlying identity as ways to define the human existence against nature allowed the terms to be used so effectively in this way, that is, to demarcate opposing visions of the proper object of social scientific knowledge.