Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The double bind of culture

Just heard of one of these social scientists (who is known for making blanket statements) making some claim in a class that "there is no such thing as culture."

This bright young mind (who truly believes he is a scientist in a lab coat and can measure things like skin color to predict social behavior) noted that culture doesn't exist because it can't be defined. In terms of epistemology, this raises a vital question regarding how social scientists think of the legitimacy of the science they do: To the extent they can define something, lay it out (they call it operationalization), and come to an agreement about it (which is mostly some privileged white men and women sitting around a table/journal/conference panel/review panel), the thing comes to existence. So from this standpoint, having some privilege and then using the privilege to come to an agreement is what constitutes the valdity of a concept.

What I find insightful in this logic is the agenda of neocolonialism that is written into it. To the extent that White men and women situated in US-centric (more broadly Eurocentric) academy can sit around, put forth concepts, and then come to agreements about these concepts, they continue to perpetuate the hegemony of the conceptual categories and epistemological tools they invent to maintain their privilege.

From this vantage point of privilege, concepts such as culture are threatening (particularly when applied in postcolonial, Subaltern Studies, and indigenous contexts), not because they can't be defined, but because they threaten to explode the centuries of privilege enjoyed by White men and women from the West under the logic of Enlightenment (more on the uses of the scientific discourse on culture to serve the agendas of colonialism in the next blog post).

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