By Pál Nyiri
Joana Breidenbach and I wrote this book as a response to Ulf Hannerz’s lament about the inability of anthropologists – the professional students of human cultures – to respond adequately to “one-big-thing” books such as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations by presenting alternative visions that were clear and accessible. “Leaving an intellectual vacuum behind is not much of a public service,” Hannerz wrote in Foreign News.
In a recent debate on the subject, anthropologists Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson wrote that “we need vigorous translation work” from the language of anthropology into a publicly accessible one “to explain that Islam is malleable and diverse, that Egyptian peasants are part of a globalized economy, and that ethnicity is always in historical flux.”
The idea probably sounds less novel to anthropologists in continental Europe, who are often already engaged in such “translation work” (my colleague Thijl Sunier’s recent inaugural lecture is a good example), than to those in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Nonetheless, we think Seeing Culture Everywhere is novel in that it attempts to show the effects of all-pervasive “culturalism” – i.e. the recent, rather caricaturistic public attention to culture as a group trait – right across the range of public debates and decision making, from international relations to interpersonal mediation.
The book is written for non-anthropologists: it is a plea to take culture seriously, but to be critical towards the simplifying claims about culture offered by a range of actors, from politicians and political commentators such as Huntington to intercultural trainers. It also offers an explanation for why the “culture fever” is so pervasive today.
Pal Nyiri is Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective at the VU University.