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Culture Wars: context, models and anthropologists' accounts

Deborah James, Evelyn Plaice and Christina Toren (eds)
Berghahn Books (March 2010)

Culture Wars will be launched at the forthcoming EASA (European Association of Social Anthropologists) conference. The book investigates the relationship between culture, context, and anthropologists’ models and accounts in new ways. In doing so, it offers fresh insights into this key area of anthropological research.

When EASA  was founded, it was intended to provide a counterweight to the preoccupations of its 'rival across the pond' - the AAA (American Anthropological Association): in particular by challenging its preoccupation with culture.

Nearly twenty years on, and we are still wrestling with one of anthropology’s most contentious concepts. However far we may imagine we have moved beyond the dichotomous opposition between US and UK/European anthropology, it is still true in some sense that the American approach highlights culture - or, in its most recent version, 'knowledge/power' - where British and European anthropology pays more attention to matters of structure, such as kinship, political institutions, and the like. Extending the contrast, it has often been claimed that American anthropology favours cultural relativism (coming to a head in the postmodernist critique of ethnography) where its European/British counterpart strives for more universalistic explanations. It was proposed that EASA would allow for an exploration of alternatives to the postmodernist criticism of ethnography while not necessarily taking the opposing - empiricist - position that no theory could possibly do justice to the insights and complex descriptions of ethnography. It would enable the exploration of alternative views on the motivations behind and the underpinnings of social life, and the ways in which anthropologists’ approaches are both rooted in these as well as providing reflections upon them.

The papers collected in this volume aim to contribute to EASA’s project by illustrating, in a fundamentally different vein, the relationship between anthropologists’ ethnographic investigations and the lived social worlds in which these originate. They problematise the dualistic proposition that only native voices may offer authentic accounts of culture and hence that ethnographers are only ever interpreters of it: showing instead that anthropologists are, themselves, implanted within specific cultural contexts which generate particular kinds of theoretical discussions. In so doing, these papers reflect upon the influence of one of EASA’s most august founders, Adam Kuper - currently a visiting professor in the Department of Anthropology at LSE.

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Culture Wars