Escaping from culturalism

Contemporary social sciences have abandoned any “culturalist” conception of culture based on the mythical image of the community (Gemeinschaft), where everyone is rigorously guided by a way of thinking and acting that they have inherited from their ancestors. Such a totalitarian vision of culture makes humans sorts of “cultural dopes” (Garfinkel). However, while the radical form of this vision has disappeared, more or less light versions remain. These versions continue to be based on a vision of culture by which the latter determines behaviour, although they do moderate the rigour of this determinism. This moderation can be achieved, as with Anthony Giddens, by emphasising actors’ ability, over time, to modify the cultural models that govern their action at any given moment. It can also be achieved, as with Ann Swidler, by considering that a culture does not impose an unequivocal way of acting, but offers a limited repertoire of possible actions. The approach to culture that sees a context of interpretation in this, as with Clifford Geertz, is also in danger of falling back into a certain culturalism, whenever it associates an unequivocal manner of giving meaning, that is likely to lead to a determined behaviour, to a given culture. To actually escape from culturalism, as we have been led to do, requires developing a conception of culture that takes account of the fact that the link between culture and behaviour is much more indirect.

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