A Review: Response to Race and the Culture of Anthropology

Race and Culture

The main article summarized and reviewed is by the Kamala Visweswaran entitled the Race and Culture of Anthropology. Philip C. Salzman book, Understanding Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theory was cited.

“It is a mistake to assume that multiculturalism or cultural studies… each lays claim to the term culture, immediately share something with anthropology. My argument is in fact, the reverse. Multiculturalism and cultural studies have emerged as counterdisciplinary formations that radically foreground race and racial identity precisely because the modern anthropological notion of culture cannot so do…I suggest the disturbing possibility that the attempt to expunge race from social science by assigning it to biology, as Boas and his students did, helped legitimate the scientific study of race, thereby fueling the machine of scientific racism.” (Visweswaran, 70).  This best summarizes Visweswaran’s salient points. Visweswaran also presents substantial evidence proving Boas’ racist inclinations. This was quite shocking to me since my of taking Cultural Anthropology way back in my Freshman year I have long idealized Boas as a champion for equality. But after reading this article I had begrudgingly admit that Boas was merely working in his self-interest, disproving all Anti-Semitic claims made by the Nazi regime in Europe.

            Anyways rearing back to the main point stressed in this article, the legacy of race left behind by Boas is one that has dodged the topic of race almost entirely. Boas incorrectly defined race as a biological concept, when in fact most evidence suggests the opposite that race is almost entirely socially constructed. Furthermore, the boundary/difference between race, culture, and ethnic group only seems to have been muddled by their efforts.

Ruth Benedict, one of Boas students following in her mentor’s footsteps attempted to separate race from the value and inherent racism attached only to fail. She advocated for a color-blind society, which ideologically is great but realistically is highly impractical.  I must credit Benedict with making leaps on the understanding of non-western cultures with her 4 principles of cultural relativism: different cultures are based upon different principles and have different emphases and values; it is inappropriate and uninformative to explain or evaluate one culture by the perspectives and values of a different one; a culture is not just a collection of various custom, norms, institutions, values, and practices that have been selected from the range of human possibilities rather each culture is integrated into a whole that tends towards consistency; cultures select elements from their environment according to their suitability for established configuration and elements selected for by unavoidable external pressures (Salzman, 69-70).

The other student of Boas that Visweswaran discusses in detail is Ashley Montagu, who worked more in the field of Physical Anthropology.  Montagu argued that geneticists had already moved beyond the race concepts even going as far to resolve proper understanding of population genetics proved the invalidity of the race concept (Visweswaran, 74). I agree with this conclusion. Most importantly Montagu recognized that variation within a group considered a “race” was as great as variation between the groups.

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