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Michael Agar “Culture: can you take it anywhere?”

January 7, 2013 Leave a comment

Agar, Michael 2006. Culture: Can you take it anywhere? International Journal of Qualitative Methods 5(2). Online: http://www.ualberta.ca/~iiqm/backissues/5_2/pdf/agar.pdf

Culture, then, is first of all a working assumption, an assumption that a translation is both necessary and possible to make sense of rich points. The assumption is based on observations of recurrent patterns of rich points across some common person/situation categories. The assumption is, there are shared mean-ings/contexts unknown to you. You have to figure out what they are. The classic ethnographic problem. Whatever we do with culture, it has to anchor there. Culture names the solution that you assume you can find. Culture is what you eventually show the world to explain meaning problems in terms of contexts.

Like a translation, culture is relational. Like a trans-lation, culture links a source languaculture, LC2, to a target languaculture, LC1. Like a translation, it makes no sense to talk about the culture of X without saying the culture of X for Y. Whenever we hear the term culture, we need to ask, of whom and for whom? Culture names the translation required, given contact between a particular source and a particular target.

Culture is a construction, a translation between source and target, between LC1 and LC2. The amount of ma-terial that goes into that translation, that culture, will vary, depending on the boundary between the two.

Culture isn’t a property of them, nor is it a property of us. It is an artificial construction built to enable translation between them and us, between source and target. It is intersubjective, as the jargon says. It needs to be elaborate enough to get the job done and no more elaborate than that. If source and target are already similar in meanings and contexts, it will take less cul-ture to do the job than if source and target are far apart. The translation we build is the culture we describe.

Culture is not only relational. It is also partial. We can no longer say culture in the singular when referring to a particu-lar person or a particular situation. The plural is now obligatory. A particular moment or a particular person or a particular group is never about just one culture. It is always about cultures.

Any community is about cultures now, plural, and everyone in that community has a different mix available, and everyone draws on a different subset of that mix in different ways. No person, or group, can be described, explained, or generalized completely with a single cultural label.

With bottom-up rich points, the approach changes, though, because the ethnography involves the many forms the rich point takes in different langua-cultures—in different domains and at different levels of scale. It asks the question of why that rich point exists at all, a blend of Malinowski and Foucault, what I think of as the Malinault or Foucowski approach. From Malinowksi I take the emphasis on learning a rich point by watching how it is used in a variety of different activity sequences by a variety of categories of people. From Foucault I take the question of where the rich point came from, why it exists at all, what history produced it and what political forces hold it in place?

This is a different breed of ethnographic cat. It fore-grounds chasing the rich point across domains and lev-els rather than chasing it in order to translate a specific LC2 in use at some person/activity coordinates in the social world.

[…] culture is another name for the translation between LC1 and LC2 that an ethnographer builds as a product of his/her work.