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The term culture has been broadly used to denote the identity-shaping beliefs, activities, institutions, and artifacts resulting from human interaction. Cultures are subject to constant change over time from environmental forces, political struggles, and social inequalities. Although human populations may bond through shared cultural features, cultures themselves can resist easy categorization when they exhibit human actions that are contradictory, ambiguous, and disorderly.
The concept of culture occupies an important place both in academia and everyday usage. Since culture means so many things at once, it is hard to define in simple terms. In fact, one 1960s text noted that there were at least 150 definitions of the term in use. The term has for long been used in a variety of contexts to describe the activities, beliefs, institutions, and artifacts produced out of the interactions among human beings. Culture understood in terms of meaningful actions can be located among both human and nonhuman species. Among humans, culture can be located at many levels of human interaction, from the smallest of human groups (such as a nuclear family) to successively larger units of human organization (communities, tribes, ethnicities, societies, nations, and civilizations). It is culture that imparts a sense of identity to human beings.
Perhaps it is the discipline of modern anthropology that has been expressly concerned with defining the term. Over the past hundred years or so anthropologists have debated the relevance of this term and generated a variety of definitions on both sides of the Atlantic. Some, like David Schneider, Claude Levi- Strauss, and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, despite differences, tended to view culture in terms of underlying structures whose order could be uncovered. Others like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead associated culture with personality types. After World War II, greater attention began to be focused on the changing and disorderly aspects of culture that had for long been ignored by most anthropologists. Scholars like Clifford Geertz and the Comaroffs (John and Jean) began to study culture in terms of the meanings and symbolic actions of human beings over time.
Today, there is a general consensus that cultures are profoundly shaped by history, that is, they are subject to constant change over time. Cultures are shaped by environmental forces, political struggles, and social inequalities. Cultural features might be widely shared among human populations. At the same time, they may also exhibit human meanings and actions that are contradictory, ambiguous, and disorderly, and which resist easy categorization.
Culture and the Study of World History
The concept of culture occupies a prominent place in the writings of world historians. So pervasive is the presence of this concept in the study of world history that even if not explicitly used or defined, it usually forms the basis for the understanding of many associated concepts such as society, nation, civilization, regime, and world system. World historians frequently use culture to highlight the unique features, achievements, and activities that characterize these human groups. The term has also been extended to distinguish broad patterns of sustained interactions between societies. Obviously, much depends on the particular focus, method, objectives, and audiences of the writers in question. Despite the widespread use of the term, however, world historians have yet to subject it to sustained theoretical reflection. In general, depictions of culture in world history tend to take shape within three broad types of writings, namely, universal histories, themed world histories, and microlevel world histories.
Universal histories have found expression in a number of works since the nineteenth century. Such works have typically been interested in developing grand-scale interpretations about the rise and fall of civilizations in human history. Borrowing extensively from such fields as archaeology, cosmology, economics, geology, politics, and sociology, writers such as Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) and Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975) produced synoptic histories of the world that transcended national histories. These writers were primarily concerned with uncovering laws that governed the rise and fall of civilizations. Their accounts of the history of the world became the study of birth and demise of organic and bounded units called civilizations.
In these universal histories, culture often became equated with the political, intellectual, and artistic achievements that defined civilizations. Oswald Spengler made distinctions between civilization and culture, indicating that the former represented the latter in its last stages prior to its plunging into decline. For others, the role of culture was subordinated to the influence of the economy and class struggle (in the case of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels) or to abstract notions of a progressively advancing universal human spirit (in the case of G. W. F. Hegel). Given the scale of interpretation and the sweeping generalizations being made, it is hardly surprising that there was little explicit theorization of culture. The minute details of cultural production and transformation were invariably ignored in favor of making broad statements about the characteristic features of civilizations. Europe and the elite classes received a greater share of attention than did other parts of the world or more oppressed populations. Although treatments of culture remain to be fully developed in such accounts, ambitious world histories of this genre continue to be written, and with impressive (though sometimes controversial) results. Notable instances of such work can be found in Max Weber’s work on the connections between the Protestant ethic and the rise of a capitalist ethic in western Europe. More recently the works of David Landes and Samuel Huntington continue in this idealist vain with “culture” driving economic development and political conflict on a world historical scale.
Following World War II world historians began increasingly to concentrate on specific themes of world historical significance. They examined specific human activities and patterns of interactions (political conquests, long-distance trading, nomadic migrations, the spread of religions) that could be discerned over long periods of time and vast regions of the earth. The focus was on themes of global significance rather than on constructing grand accounts of the world that tried to explain the whole of human history within a single intellectual framework.
One set of writings tried to gauge the production, transmission, and experiences of social and economic inequality between nations. In the 1960s and early 1970s, a number of scholars took up projects that tried to explain the rise of the West and the continued modernization (or lack thereof) of the world’s nations through economic development. The treatment of culture in such accounts was uneven. In some writings culture became a residual category, where activities pertaining to the arts, literature, and the intellect, were deposited. In others, the role of culture was subordinated to the study of political and economic forces. Once again, there was an excessive focus on Europe.
Over the past decade or so the terms of this debate have changed considerably as scholars began to write more sophisticated and non-Eurocentric studies examining why Europe’s history diverged so drastically from that of the rest of the world. Greater economic agency and centrality have been given to other parts of the world, especially Asia. These historians have usually given primacy to political and economic factors when explaining the great divergence in the development of European and non-European societies since the eighteenth century. Few writers give preeminence to culture as an important determinant of the great divergence between Europe and the rest of the world (but see David Landes’s 1998 The Wealth and Poverty of Nations). In this genre of writings culture has come to stand for attitudes, ideologies, and values that distinguish one society from another.
In the 1970s another genre of world-historical writings began to emerge that focused on world-systems analysis. Operating on many levels and over many time periods, these scholars tried to map the economic connections that linked vast regions of the globe. The emphasis once again was on the role of political, social, and economic factors in the formation of global patterns of economic exchange. In Wallersteinian world-system studies, it is the nature of the world system that shapes culture, which usually leaves culture as the ideological by-product of capitalism (see Immanuel Wallerstein’s 1991 Geopolitics and Geoculture: Essays on the Changing World System).
Another focus of world-history studies has been cross-cultural encounters. These writings examine processes that transcend geographical and political boundaries to connect societies or cultures spread over vast distances and times. Some of the most interesting writing on culture in contemporary world history has its roots in this influential body of work. These writers convincingly argue that cross-cultural connections have been one of the principal agents of change, with far-reaching consequences for our planet’s history. Over millennia, such cross-cultural flows have resulted in the movement of peoples, ideas, objects, and even microbes over vast regions of the planet, connecting and transforming diverse societies. Studies have examined ecological exchanges, technology transfer, trade networks, migrations, religious conversions, circuits of pilgrimage, processes of imperialism and globalization, and frontiers as zones of exchange. The works have moved from simple explanations of one-sided diffusion to two-way processes of mutual exchange and transformation. Yet while the phrase cross-cultural interactions finds frequent expression in world historical writings, there is little discussion about what is cultural about these interactions. In many writings culture becomes a synonym for society. In others, the term culture may be used to refer to human activities, such as migration and conquest, through which ideas, objects, and peoples are exchanged. But while the interactions between cultures are mapped in detail, most world historians have hesitated to provide conceptual clarifications for the term culture that take into account wider debates in other fields (though there are exceptions).
This is not to say that engagements between disciplines such as history and anthropology have yet to take place. After the 1970s, the traditional boundaries between anthropology and history began to dissolve as scholars realized that culture and history could not be separated. Historians began to read the works of cultural anthropologists, works in which culture was seen in terms of the meanings embedded in human interactions. In the decades that followed there was considerable debate about the politics of ethnographic writing, and even about the salience of the term culture. This brought the concept of culture to the center of academic debate and writing. These developments, along with borrowings from poststructuralist and postcolonial writings in the 1980s and 1990s, served to bring about a democratization of history and anthropology that resulted in the inclusion of the voices of women, minorities, and oppressed peoples. Sensitive accounts of the dynamics of culture, power, history, and resistance followed. The combined result of this intellectual ferment was the emergence of a new genre of sophisticated writings that is sometimes called the “new cultural history.” Culture was no longer seen as static and organic but as highly factor-centered, ordered, even intuitive, and yet prone to moments of disorder and flux. In these new writings there is increased emphasis on microlevel studies of the creation, transmission, and experience of culture within specific historical contexts.
The rise of the new cultural history has allowed the emergence of a third genre of culturally oriented scholarship in world history, one that explores world-historical themes through microlevel analyses that show the interpenetration of global and local forces. Unlike in past scholarship, global forces are not seen as occupying some higher level of existence that is separate from local forces. The new approach proposes that global forces manifest themselves in local situations in the everyday lives of people within specific historical contexts; the study of culture becomes the study of the interpenetration of the global and the local. Writings of this genre have focused on themes such as conversion, colonialism, globalization, and capitalism. They provide sophisticated treatments of culture—now viewed as a shifting arena of meanings and actions shaped in a variety of historical contexts. The emphasis is on revealing the complex ways in which human beings come to terms with the conditions of existence that shape their lives.
Culture and Other World Historical Traditions
The study of culture in world history will undoubtedly gradually extend to societies outside Europe that have developed their own rich understandings of the human condition. Orally and textually preserved worldviews from non-Western societies around the world have focused on such subjects as civilizations, jurisprudence, trade, science, philosophy, politics, theology, literature, and geography. Hindu and Buddhist cosmographies, for example, constructed their own world systems based on multiple realms of heavens, hells, and various kinds of beings that interacted with human beings. Royal historians, travelers, intellectuals, and common folk from around the world have spoken and written on topics that reflected their own understandings of culture, power, and history. For instance, the fourteenth-century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) observed in his universal history, the Muqaddimah, that the study of human social organization formed an essential part of the scientific study of civilization. While such works might be termed “ahistorical” by the standards of modern historical scholarship, there is an increasing awareness that such accounts need to be explained on their own terms, separate from Western traditions of historical analysis.
The Future of Culture in World History
Culture has been variously defined in relation to communities, societies, states, nations, empires, and civilizations and world systems. The descriptions of culture have ranged from the simple to the complex. While it is generally recognized that culture finds its best expression in detailed local and regional histories, there has been little discussion about the use of the term at the level of global or planetary studies. Even today, many world histories treat culture as a residual field of human activities and artifacts that cannot be labeled political, social, or economic. On other occasions it has signified the presence of broad patterns of interactions between human collectives, with little clarification on what was “cultural” about these interactions. For these reasons, a number of questions remain for world historians. Is the concept of culture even appropriate for universal histories, with their broad sweep and general focus? Do world historians need to develop another term? What distinguishes the concept of culture from, for example, the concept of society?
Questionable too is the continued anchoring of culture to continental and area-studies schemes of world geography. More recently there have been attempts to revise these metageographical schemes and construct regions that are more representative of the cultures they claim to represent. Ultimately, the question of culture will depend on where one wants to locate the world in world history—at the level of the global, in the manifestation of broad interactions and processes, or at the level of the local. Either way, world historians writing in the twenty-first century will increasingly strive to deploy a concept of culture (or its associated terms) that attempts to represent both the particular and the general as they write about the connections that have bound human beings to one another and to their environments for millennia across this diverse planet. Culture continues to be relevant to world history, and world historians are beginning to engage the term with increasing rigor.
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