I’d like here to introduce two classic and still insightful anthropological texts, both of which I’ve discussed in earlier posts on this blog: Julian Steward’s ideas about cultural ecology and a “culture core” as developed in Theory of Culture Change and Edward Sapir’s discussion of the meanings or senses in which we use the word “culture” in his essay “Culture – Genuine and Spurious.” (By the way, see a recent blog post at Culture Matters for a good discussion of another portion of Sapir’s essay than I’ll talk about here.)
Cultural Ecology and the Culture Core
In an earlier piece, “Freedom and Restraint, Part II,” where I was discussing various factors which shape culture and human action, I included this section on Steward and his ideas:
Environmental Conditions and Julian Steward’s Culture Core Argument
Environmental conditions do not determine human action in any culture, but they shape, influence, and restrain human action in all cultures.
When examining ways in which physical conditions of the environment shape and constrain human action, I find it useful to revisit Julian Steward’s “culture core” idea. It’s now an “old” idea (first fully laid out in his Theory of Culture Change from 1955), but hardly “out of date.” It has the advantage of being elegant and straightforward. It’s compatible with (in fact was a starting point for) cultural ecological and cultural materialist perspectives on relations between human practice and culture and the environment, but doesn’t require hardcore commitment to such perspectives in order to see its basic merits.
Steward’s reasoning starts with the straightforward fact that human beings have to meet certain basic needs in order to simply continue to exist, such as the need for adequate food, in some contexts the need for adequate shelter and clothing, etc. How humans go about meeting these needs is not straightforward at all, but that they must meet them or die is. Steward further argues that there is always a “culture core” that must maintain a certain degree of functionality. The culture core consists of those elements of culture directly related to meeting basic human needs.
The culture core is where the physical environment influences and possibly constrains cultural patterns most strongly. The culture core consists of patterns of behavior that must be performed using available resources. The nature and distribution of available resources shapes the possibilities for how people can go about making a living. In areas where resources are both plentiful and widely and evenly distributed, there may be many ways to go about meeting basic needs, and so the environment has a lesser constraining influence. In places where resources are scarce and widely scattered in distribution, there may be a much tighter range of possible ways to meet basic needs.
Technology plays a crucial role here. As societies develop technology that enable them to manipulate the physical environment to a greater degree, the environment is less of a constraining influence, or it at least constrains to a lesser degree, and the range of resources that can be utilized and the extent to which land itself might be used as a resource expands. The North American Great Plains are a great place to farm – if you have domesticated animals and steel plows (or tractors) that you’ve developed somewhere else.
In general then, environmental restraints are proportionally more important for smaller societies with lower levels of technology (though the exact nature and distribution of resources and the exact level of available technology shapes the specific degree and type of restraint that the environment plays), while larger societies are less constrained by the environment.
Even for the contemporary world with its global economy, though, the culture core concept and environmental constraint still apply. Basic needs still have to be met. There’s a quite large, but finite, range of ways in which that can currently be done, and crucially it’s not at all clear that current methods of producing basic needs are sustainable at the global level, which is a good reason for anthropologists and others who think mainly about human social relations to be cognizant of issues such as global warming, as well as human-environmental relations in general.
Steward and Southern Culture
The physical and ecological features of the south alone did not determine that plantation agriculture would dominate the south for as long as it did (the Plantation as a socioeconomic system in fact never encompassed the entire South), though those physical features, in combination with given levels of technology and the global economic context did create a context in which, for example, cotton production on plantations was quite profitable both before and after the Civil War, until a combination of changes in ecological conditions (continued degradation of soil) and the global economy (cheap cotton produced elsewhere) undermined the viability of cotton in much of the region (though it’s still an important crop in parts of the South).
The organization of plantations and the economy generally was tied to and influenced by the cultural ecological context, e.g. the particular crop grown made a difference in terms of the social organization of production and local society generally. Areas associated with the growing of cotton, sugar, or tobacco were organized differently, with subtly different patterns of race interaction ensuing. Areas of the South not particularly tied to plantations at all were different still. (There are many fascinating comparative studies of this sort for some Caribbean regions. For example, sugar and tobacco plantation zones of Cuba are quite different socially.)
The components of culture probably most tied to and influenced by cultural ecology and economic structuring were the systems of race and class. The caste-like racial system, in particular, facilitated the functioning of the brutally exploitative plantation as social system, both during and after the official abolition of slavery. Likewise, while there were many factors involved in the dismantling of Jim Crow (including the perseverance of civil rights activists, the televised images of horrors like the beatings during the march from Selma to Montgomery and the shock this provoked, or the Cold War context), one critical component was the demise of the plantation system by the mid-20th century that the racial system had been so intertwined with in practice, undermining southern elites’ economic stake in racial apartheid.
Other elements of southern culture, the food (especially in the sense of specific preparations), dialects, personal dispositions, etc., certainly developed alongside the ecological and economic structuring of the 19th and early 20th century South, but were less clearly intertwined and determined by them. Many of these cultural elements derived from elsewhere, and are more easily able to persist independently of a specific economic context. Ironically, these cultural elements, so highly prized by many southerners today, were not so clearly part of the culture core, were frankly less important in their specific details in terms of sustaining life or an economic infrastructure, and precisely as a result of that have been able to survive the near total transformation of economic infrastructure and cultural ecology that the South has seen over the course of the last half century.
Sapir and Culture
In another earlier post, “Culture, Culture Change, and the Ethics of Cultural Intervention,” I briefly discussed Sapir’s essay. The following paragraph is a selection from that post:
In an important article, “Culture – Genuine and Spurious,” Edward Sapir noted that there are three important senses in which “culture” is used. He recognized that “culture” in the sense of high culture represented a restricted subset of the sense of culture as a total lifeway in that it represented the lifeway of a particular class context. He also noted, though, that there is another important way in which we used “culture.” As with “high culture,” we often use “culture” in a way more restricted than to refer to all aspects of the total patterned lifeway of a population. In this third sense, we mean the core premises of identity, values, ethos, and worldview and a restricted set of practices taken as “typical” or “essential.” It is typically these elements of the lifeway which are most durable, most valued, or that are the intended reference when people speak of their culture. So, for example, maquiladora factories and Coca-Cola are part of the total lifeway of Mexico today, and thus are part of Mexican culture in one sense of the word, but are not the sorts of things people (Mexican or otherwise) typically intend when speaking of “Mexican culture.”
This is what southerners are doing when they focus on certain cultural items as representing “southern culture.” They’re discursively evoking a subset of items, that really do derive from ways of life in the South or that fit with a certain ethos or “feel” (deep-fried twinkies, readily available at any fair in the south these days, can’t be said to derive from an already existing practice, but they certainly fit with an ethos of frying everything and so, “feel” like a southern thing to do), in order to produce “Southern Culture.”
An important point here (that I’ll end with, but also begin my follow-up post with) is that there is no unitary “Southern Culture.” I don’t just mean that cultural practices vary throughout what is really a large region, though that is, of course, the case. I also mean that in Sapir’s third sense of “culture,” when people evoke a specific subset of cultural practices to produce a sense of the essence of their culture – in this case a sense of what is authentically southern and what is quintessentially southern – there are competing views of what “Southern Culture” is.