Comments on Culture

Tasty disclaimers | August 26, 2009

It’s something we hear about a lot, in the news, movies, and while we travel. Americans are perceived by the rest of the world in certain romanticized or despised ways. United States citizens are aware of this very general idea, but we don’t talk about it much.

I asked an Anthropology professor a long time ago if one could specialize in American culture. She replied that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AMERICAN CULTURE, only American cultureS. We are too varied and diverse a people to all fall under one “American culture.” Interestingly, though, every non-academic person I’ve told this to says, “Huh? Of course there’s an American culture.”

I wondered, why are the pro’s missing what the laypeople see? Why is the discipline whose job it is to identify patterns of behavior—values and norms shared by groups of people—missing this seemingly obvious group? Why don’t anthropologists study American culture?

The first and most relevant answer is that my professor was right to a degree. There is a lot of cultural diversity here. But, all immigrant groups, sub-cultures and co-cultures face the issue of assimilation. Doesn’t that necessarily imply that there is a way of life to assimilate into? Well, what is “American” then? From the inside, it’s easy to think there are so many different ways to live here that one could never come to an agreeable definition. But there is a perceived model of “Americans” abroad. And as such, the grouping has already been done, so we might as well talk about it.

I believe that there is a strong sense of American identity felt by those who live here and perceived by those who don’t. And defining that, exploring how that identity and perception is developed and maintained or changed is my life’s intellectual passion.

The product of this investigation will be to explore and celebrate the ways in which individuals and groups identify American-ness—how they describe our national culture, if they see one, and how they feel their experiences align or differ from it, and to do the same with groups and people abroad. I would love to compare the descriptions of what it means to be American as told by people from California to Calcutta.

The second argument is that there already is a study of American culture. It’s called American Studies, and it’s a fine discipline. The reason I want to pursue this as an anthropological inquiry rather than an Americanist one is, A) I am only interested in pop culture in how it helps to define and export macro-American culture, whereas American Studies takes greater care in analyzing media, and B) I really want to talk about values, identity and behavior. Anthropology has an academic empire of theory and methodology with which to do that.

I like the anthropological approach. I just want to apply it here. Studies of bush people were of interest for a time and helped the discipline form and grow. Now we have sharpened tools and need a bigger cut of meat. How about an enormous, highly varied and relatively young culture that is conceived of in every corner of the globe? Chopped up in bite size pieces by careful ethnography? It sounds like an unwieldy, large project, but really it’s just conversations.

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