The question of culture has long vexed the discipline of Anthropology–almost from its turn-of-the-last-century emergence. Then, Franz Boas led the establishment of a holistic framework for investigating human diversity–biological and cultural, past and present (and possibly future). At its most basic, culture–it is agreed–is a holistic concept that links human individuals to larger groups … and that emphasizes how larger groups persist over time. In short, culture aims to explain human sociality in all of its diverse forms. The problem is with “aims to explain.” Because disagreement persists over HOW culture generally explains human sociality, the concept is a kind of placeholder for pending or hoped-for theoretical coherence within the discipline. This is where we are today. Although most major American and Canadian academic Anthropology departments maintain a three- or four-field structure–with cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology comprising the “Boasian” subdisciplines–the concept of culture does not run continuously among or within these subdisciplines as a mutually understood, foundational theoretical thread.
Let me put this another way. Franz Boas successfully founded North American Anthropology, which quickly became a widely acknowledged academic discipline. He established the “four-field” umbrella structure that laid the intellectual groundwork from which “biocultural evolution” concepts emerged in the 1970’s. Yet, no single definition of culture took hold then, nor has one taken hold now–within cultural anthropology or across the four main subfields of Boasian Anthropology. As I discuss in the post “What is Biocultural Evolution?” this vagueness or confusion over the culture concept continues to limit inquiry into biocultural evolution. This, despite widespread implicit agreement that biocultural evolution, whatever it actually is, is an important force in human evolution. If we are to clarify the question of culture–and I really do simply mean, “What is culture in the first place?”–we need to identify where anthropologists have lost the thread.