Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Do Cultural Universals Exist?

Cultural universals are traits or institutions that exist in all cultures worldwide. The concept of cultural universals has existed in American Anthropology since the beginning of the 20th century. The question I’ve come up with for myself is: does cultural universality exist?
It’s generally accepted that killing another human being is unacceptable behavior. This belief is found worldwide, but is it a universal? Consider India, where it has long been accepted that if a married man dies his wife should be burned. There are many societies which view this as morally reprehensible, but it is a long-standing (though now outlawed) tradition. There are societies in which honor killings and human sacrifices are viewed as essential. So, though most societies worldwide consider taking the life of another as implicitly wrong, it is not a universal belief.
Some things are considered to be cultural universals, and I’m not quite sure if they are. Some of the ways in which we use language are considered to be universal, such as the fact all languages are translatable, or that they all have the logical notion of opposites. I’m not so sure these “universals” are cultural products. All languages are quite similar when broken down. That is true. Humans use language in very similar ways, no matter what language they are speaking.  Is that really a product of culture, or is it a product of the way humans are hardwired? Are our large brains cognitively able to handle language structure and use in a way that it isn’t currently used? Not being a neurologist, I have no answer to that; it’s just a thought.
Perhaps I’m being too specific. In a more general sense, there are universal qualities about humans. We’ve mastered tool-making. Every culture I have read about has a culturally accepted ritual surrounding a deceased loved one. Using these more general terms, my example earlier about killing others being wrong can be changed and become a universal by saying every culture has a stance on taking the life of another human. Not all stances are the same, but every culture has a stance on killing.
When attempting to uncover cultural universals, one must decide between taking a Boas-style approach or a Radcliffe-Brown approach. Is it more important to gather the information before drawing conclusions (Boas), or should conclusions be made during the course of study (Radcliffe-Brown)?  Shouldn’t you gather all the facts before you draw your conclusions? The problem is if the entire field of anthropology adopted a Boasian approach, then the discipline would encounter the same problem as Boas himself: anthropology would become atheoretical. Boas was a great anthropologist and did marvelous work. He basically founded American Anthropology and made it what it is today, but he never had any theories, nor did many of his students. Taking Radcliffe-Brown’s approach, data is collected and compared sooner. When searching for true cultural universals, either method would take a lot of time, but by following Radcliffe-Brown’s methodology theories can come out much sooner. When new information is uncovered, current theories can change accordingly.
So, do cultural universals exist? If I’m going to go with the more specific mode, I would say no. But speaking in the more general manner, I would say yes. And really, the more people you are trying to group together, the more general you must be. Trying to link cultures across the globe in any meaningful way necessitates generalization. Therefore I must conclude that cultural universals exist.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Language and Thought

What does it take to use language? Linguists typically divide the knowledge into two categories: competence and performance, basically knowing the rules and speaking the language. This is pretty cut and dry, and linguistic anthropologists tend to think there is more to "knowing" a language than just knowing its rules. Because they are anthropologists, they like to have a list of things you need to know to "know" language: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. We learn language primarily through interaction with others. It's generally accepted that language cannot be developed or learned in isolation, and that makes sense because language is used for communicating with others, right? Well, what about when we are communicating with ourselves?

We  think in language. When we are thinking, most times we aren't thinking in abstract concepts; we are thinking in nouns, verbs, and adjectives. So, is it possible to have thought without language? This was the topic of a long discussion/debate in my linguistic anthropology class. During that class, I admit that I was a fence-sitter. I just didn't have a real opinion on the matter at the time. After sitting on the issue for two months, I think I'm ready to take a side and say that I believe that thought is possible without language. Think about it. If humans didn't have thought before they had language, how would the language have come about? The impetus for language was most likely to communicate thoughts that already existed to another member of the community.

 Although I believe that thought can exist independently of language, I do think that the invention of language made thought a lot easier. Obviously, if the word for "need" does not exist in your language, you can still need things, only you wouldn't be able to express that. You might use the word "want" when you needed something. Similarly, people often start thinking about something in a discussion, and then will forget the word for the particular object or concept they are trying to talk about.

That's all I have to say on this topic for now, but I might revisit it later.