Culture. Power. Place: Ethnography at the End of an Era
. It has become usual to assert that the theoretical thread linking
twentieth-century American cultural anthropology through its various
moods and manifestations has been the concept of culture. In a sense,
this is true. Certainly, the Boasian success in establishing the auton-
omy of the cultural from biological-cum-racial determination set the
stage for the most important theoretical developments to follow. But
perhaps just as central as the concept of "culture" has been what we
might call the concept of "cultures": the idea that a world of human
differences is to be conceptualized as a diversity of separate societies,
each with its own culture. It was this key conceptual move that made it
possible, in the early years of the century, to begin speaking not only of
culture but also of "a culture" - a separate, individuated cultural en-
tity, typically associated with "a people," "a tribe," "a nation," and so
forth (Stocking 1982:202-3).1
was this entity ("a culture") that
provided the theoretical basis for cross-cultural comparison, as well as
the normal frame for ethnographic description (hence accounts of
"Hopi culture," fieldwork "among the Ndembu," and so on). This
often implicit conceptualization of the world as a mosaic of separate
cultures is what made it possible to bound the ethnographic object
and to seek generalization from a multiplicity of separate cases.
The later development of the idea of "a culture" as forming a sys-
tem of meaning only reinforced this vision of the world.
A culture,
whether pictured as a semiotic system to be deciphered (Marshall
Sahlins) or as a text to be read (Clifford Geertz), required description
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