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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On Culture

If you do not like blog entries about abstractions, skip this one. It is about 'culture'. Soon I will write about King's Day - much more fun, I promise.

Some time ago I was giving a guest lecture in a course on research skills for teaching staff. I do those guest lectures a couple of times per year, and I like it - it forces me to think about my own research and to explain it to others.

On the basis of earlier experiences this year, I had decided that I would focus less on content and more on methodological issues, and specifically on what is called Grounded Theory: a type of research in which you do not test a theory, but develop it on the basis of empirical data.

So in the lecture I was talking about one of the principles of Grounded Theory, which is called theoretical sampling. The fact that you start your research without a theory makes it hard to decide where to begin your sampling of data. So you simply start somewhere, without  fixed theoretical preconceptions.

One of the people present thought long and hard about this and then disagreed with me. In my specific case, I sampled interviewees only within the province of Groningen, which for the person present meant that at least I had a basic preconception of culture - a preconception that my interviewees, varied as they might be, at least shared a culture to some extent.

One of the other persons present agreed with the first, and said that my findings would probably have been different if I would have sampled only people in Groningen with a Moroccan background, so that my claim that the model I eventually developed was a general model, applicable to at least my thirty interviewees but also to many more people in Groningen, might probably be incorrect.

Knowing a bit about Moroccan 'culture' and Moroccan music, I tend to disagree; but I did not want to play that card. For the rest, I did not have a clear answer at that time. I did indicate that my view on culture was more fluid than notions of 'Groningen culture' or 'Moroccan culture' allow, but I was hasty and also slightly in dubio - those two people made me think. Which is great. Thanks.

So let me try, very shortly, to say how I look at culture.

Culture is not a thing. Culture is not something you possess. Culture is not in the genes, not in the mind, not in language, not in a vocabulary, not in gestures. Culture is a word. A word used by people to frame other people.

I am not a fan of the word. Read Lila Abu-Lughod's "Against Culture" for many of the reasons. Which is, by the way, why I also do not believe that replacing the outdated name of my beloved discipline 'ethnomusicology' by 'cultural musicology', as they do nowadays at e.g. the University of Amsterdam, solves anything. Yes, you get rid of the 'ethno', which I grant is old-fashioned and smells of 'ethnicity' - but in return you get 'culture', which is not a great help at all (the alternative description of ethnomusicology as 'the study of performing arts worldwide' - suggested by the society formerly known as the Dutch Society for Ethnomusicology - doesn't work for me, either: it seems neutral but it is not - again, you lose the 'ethno' but the words 'performing' and 'art' you get in return are just as filled with prejudices...).

Sorry, I am digressing. I wonder why people bother so much to trade in old-fashioned words for new-fashioned words. It's all fashion, eventually, so I simply don't see the point, that's all.

Back to culture. Culture is, for me, if anything at all nothing more than the shared basic understandings which make it possible to communicate - in the broadest possible sense - with others. With some people you share more, with some less; what you share changes in time; and what you share is just as important as what you do not share.

You do not share a culture; you are not part of a culture. At best you, as an individual, are an 'idio-culture'. For the rest, you live life with others through what I think is the best description of 'culture': shared and disputed ways of doing and talking.

If that is my view on what culture is, it may become clear that I cannot sample people on belonging to a culture, or not. And that I do not believe in 'Moroccan culture'. I do believe that some people share more history, more words, more ways of moving about, more tastes and smells with some than with others. But the differences are gradual always, shifting constantly, and often used strategically.

Life, my dear fellow-humans, is messy.

Using the word 'culture' as an indicator of a thing, of something that exists, is not a reference to reality. Rather, it is a strategy to make the messiness of life apparently less messy.

But life stays messy. And therefore basically incomprehensible. As Marylinne Robinson once made the very old main character of her novel Gilead say: "I stood there a little out of range and I thought, It is all still new to me." Continuously, endlessly, shockingly.

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