Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tradition and Individual Autonomy

In an earlier post, “Culture, Culture Change, and the Ethics of Cultural Intervention,” I ended by saying:

“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.”

One first principle I am asserting here follows from the enlightenment tradition and project and emphasizes the sanctity and autonomy of the individual’s freedom to act, within the limits of not violating others’ autonomy, i.e. anyone should be free to do and develop their self as they see fit. As with any first premise, this can’t be “proved,” but is a starting assumption which some will agree with and some will not.

At the same time, as a cultural anthropologist I respect the importance of cultural tradition and the diversity of ways to be human. For that matter, for me a corollary of respect for individual autonomy is a limited sort of cultural relativism, insofar as individuality is largely shaped within a particular cultural context and individual autonomy includes the freedom to practice a particular array of cultural patterned behaviors. When at odds, though, for me the individual always trumps tradition and custom (which is not at all to say that any individual’s autonomy trumps another’s right to the traditions or customs of their choosing, but rather that privileging tradition or the “norm” is to privilege one set of individuals’ autonomy over others).

To the extent that it is anything, tradition is the reification or objectification of the results of multiple individuals’ actions. To imagine tradition as functioning in a determinative or mechanistic way is to simplify and falsify the complexities of social interaction. As Pierre Bourdieu has said (Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 73), “It is necessary to abandon all theories which explicitly or implicitly treat practice as a mechanical reaction, directly determined by the antecedent conditions and entirely reducible to the mechanical functioning of pre-established assemblies, ‘models’ or ‘roles’…” Further, if culture or tradition are not determinative (and they are not), to imagine tradition as requiring adherence and to value tradition more highly than the individual is to privilege a sort of tyranny of the statistical majority at best, and to privilege the more powerful who have greater control over what counts as tradition or status quo practice.

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