Saturday, February 24, 2007

Culture, Culture Change, and the Ethics of Cultural Intervention

In an article from 1958, “The Fox Project” (Human Organization, V. 17, pp. 17-19), Sol Tax both described an applied anthropological project with the Fox Indians of Iowa and laid out the basis for anthropologists’ engaging in processes of culture change in what he called “action anthropology.” Why revisit this almost 50 year old article? Primarily because it lucidly gets at the crux of what applied or action anthropology is about, as well as some of the ethical and value considerations associated with it.

Culture and Culture Change

Tax was clearly aware that in attempting to aid the Fox Indians in the economic development of their community, he and his students were engaging in an intervention into culture and engaging directly in a process of culture change. Recognizing this, he also recognized a need for basic ground rules for such intervention into culture. He writes of the potentials for culture change in the Fox community:

“The two irreducible conditions of community-wide changes are that the new behavior does not require either (1) a loss of Fox identity, or (2) violation of Fox moral beliefs. One takes for granted also that the change is practicably possible – that the new behavior required is understandable and feasible, and that there is some reason, from the point of view of the Indians to make it. Given these two general limitations, we suppose any change is possible.”

Implicitly, a particular sense of “culture” is being used here. Anthropologists and others typically recognize two senses of the word “culture” – one the ethos, manners, mores, and patterns of high culture, the other the sense more typically employed by anthropologists focusing on a total patterned lifeway of a people or population. 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.”

For Tax or the Fox, behaviors or ideas that were simply part of the total lifeway’s set of practices were readily subject to change without controversy. It was those behaviors and ideas seen as essential to identity and moral beliefs (and I would venture to guess also those seen as essential to ethos and worldview) that were highly cherished and not changeable without controversy. Likewise, in contemporary controversies surrounding cultural description, critique, or intervention and cultural relativism, it is change with regard to those elements of the total patterned lifeway that are locally constructed (on whatever basis – in some cases ethos may be most highly touted, in others certain behaviors, in others elements of the worldview) as “the culture” in this third sense that generate controversy. No one (at least no one I can think of or imagine) is likely to criticize a critique by a non-Mexican of maquiladora factory production in Mexico City or Juarez as an example of cultural imperialism (if anything, such industrial production might be seen as cultural imperialism). A critique of “Mexican Machismo” very well might generate controversy, though.

The ethics of cultural intervention

Tax’s article is also useful in laying out provisional value orientations for engaging in applied anthropology and intervening in a particular cultural context. He lays out three values ideally involved when engaging in cultural intervention (or as he even says, “interference”).

His first value is that of truth. While ascertaining truth is an often formidable task, to value truth as a principle seems to me straightforward and non-controversial (except, perhaps, when it’s not – for example in cases where an anthropologist’s view of truth might stand in opposition to that of those being aided via applied anthropological work).

Tax continues:

“Second, we feel most strongly the value of freedom, as it is classically expressed and limited. Freedom in our context usually means freedom for individuals to choose the group with which to identify and freedom for a community to choose its way of life. We would also be embarrassed if it were shown that we are, for example, encouraging Indians to remain Indians, rather than to become something else, or trying to preserve Indian cultures, when the Indians involved would choose otherwise. All we want in our action programs is to provide, if we can, genuine alternatives from which the people involved can freely choose…”

In other words, Tax held (and I hold) the autonomy of the individual as a fundamental value.

Tax’s third value is what he called a “kind of Law of Parsimony which tells us not to settle questions of values unless they concern us.” This is an important pragmatic principle for operation, where, for example, even though some anthropologists involved in the Fox project felt that assimilation was in the interest of the Fox and others did not, Tax felt that it was inessential for them to decide, and in any case, given the higher valuation placed on the autonomy of Fox individuals, this was not the anthropologists’ decision in any case.

He discusses further the possibility of additional operating principles or premises, but decides against this. He uses the following example:

“People are always asking whether we think cannibals have a right to self-determination. With respect to cannibalism, would we not have to impose some value of our own? Now, I neither eat human flesh, nor like the thought of being eaten; I am revolted as others in our culture by the whole idea. I have no notion what I would do if I found myself involved in an action program on a cannibal isle; I can only think of jokes to say. If I attempt to answer seriously I am beset with all the value contradictions involved in so-called cultural relativism. But whatever my personal position on this, it has no significant bearing on what we should do tomorrow to help the Fox Indians develop more constructive relationships within their community, or with other Iowans.”

Frankly, I’m not sure why this example creates a conundrum, insofar as if one take the valuation of the autonomy of each individual at all seriously, then the autonomy of one person to develop themselves and determine their life to the extent possible (which obviously entails continuing to live) clearly outweighs the autonomy of another to eat them. (If you had a cannibal isle where some really autonomously consented to be eaten, then you’d have a real conundrum.) Still, Tax is right that the ethics of one case don’t really impinge on the ethics of another, so such hypothetical cases are pragmatically beside the point. Recognizing that it is pragmatically and ethically efficacious to avoid making decisions or judgment calls when not necessary, though, doesn’t help in knowing what to do when such decisions cannot be avoided. While anthropologists today are unlikely to have to grapple with the autonomy of cannibals, there are cases in virtually every cultural context where different individuals’ effective autonomy stand at odds and impinge upon one another.

While I find Tax’s article wanting in essentially evading this sort of all too common dilemma, at the same time I find that his three basic values (which are essentially the values of the Enlightenment project) serve us well. On the one hand, the combination of ethical parsimony, cultural relativism, and the valuation of individuals’ autonomy in many situations leads us anthropologically to simply attempt to describe and understand the context at hand. On the other, when the effective autonomy of individuals is at odds or is compromised (e.g. Philippe Bourgois’ example of Costa Rican plantation workers’ lives being largely shaped by decisions of landowners and managers – an example of individuals having opposed interests, or many examples of imposed female genital modification – an example where one individual’s autonomy is compromised by others for reasons typically seen as being in that person’s interest), then we must either be willing to critique such practices or realize that our lack of critique passively and tacitly accepts the imposition of power on the weaker.

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