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Are anthropologists getting sick of culture?

Image: Berghahn Books

By Matthias Teeuwen  Lately I have been captivated by what some call ‘existential anthropology’. It started when I found a book in the library aptly called: ‘What is Existential Anthropology?’ edited by Michael Jackson and Albert Piette.

Jackson and Piette lament the fact that the human being has nearly disappeared from academic writing in social and cultural anthropology. The human subject seems to have been replaced by abstract social concepts and cultural mechanisms in anthropological literature. In his contribution, Laurent Denizeau mentions an uneasy realisation that authors of literature often seem more capable to seize concrete human existence in their novels than authors of ethnographies. The essays expose a tendency amongst anthropologists ‘to reduce lived reality to culturally or socially constructed representations’ (Jackson and Piette, 2015:3).

Drawing upon existential philosophers, Jackson and Piette stress the need to consider the existence of the individual as such. Existence is so much more than ‘being within a culture’. Life often seems complex, ambiguous and contradictory; it contains chivalry, hypocrisy and mistakes; and in turns it can be indescribable, unfathomable and just damn simple. Recently some anthropologists have abandoned trying to describe life solely using something all-encompassing as culture. This led me to ask: are anthropologists getting sick of culture?

Looking at my own life (like a proper existential anthropologist) I can understand my sympathy with these ideas. I have always had reservations concerning culture, especially because I could never identify my own culture. Which is a result from having been a foreigner most of my life, living ‘between cultures’. (Calling this state between cultures a culture as such always feels a little too easy.) In this sense I think that I as an individual cannot be identified using culture. I stress that the fact that I exist makes me me. Nothing else quite captures the idea of living.

Now, if I cannot apply the concept of culture to my own life, how can I use it as an anthropologist? In fact what do I want to do as an anthropologist? Am I content with describing the Other’s way of life and worldview? Am I content with providing ethnographies of groups of people? Or do I want to get a deeper understanding of what it means to be human? I think the last.

The search to find what it means to be human led me to study theology where the imperious and existential questions regarding life are asked (questions regarding birth and death and what to do in the meantime). However, I have come to learn that anthropology is better suited to address these questions. Through actually being there, experiencing what the other experiences and ultimately sharing in his or her life can you come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive in a particular time and place.

And where does this leave culture? Culture is beautiful, but it is not everything. In fact existential anthropology warns us of just that: reducing human existence to being in culture.

Matthias Teeuwen is student-assistant at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He studies Social and Cultural Anthropology, as well as Theology.



  1. Ton Salman Ton Salman

    Dear Matthias,
    Excellent point. It has always surprised me that so little exchange occurs between anthropologists and philosophical anthropology. Although, on the other hand, I can understand it: philosophical anthropologists are after the quintessence of human-hood. Many anthropologists are skeptical about that question; the human varieties they find make them think that such an endeavor is still a far cry. Such a stand, however, runs the risk of bringing in “culture” as the excuse to omit, or even a decisive disqualification of, searches of what this human being is beyond a bearer of cultural attributes. Now, in real life, very few anthropologists would do such a thing in a reductionist way. But still, they often fall silent when it comes to theorizing the human behind the culture he or she is supposed to embody. And at the same time, will refuse to understand themselves as merely defined by the culture they grew up in….

  2. ekelenburg ekelenburg

    My dearest colleagues,
    I thank the both of you (matthias and tom) for daring!! to talk about this subject.
    But so, what I miss in your conversation (tom – matthias) is a theory you share. Please let me know what schools you share.

    • standplaatswereld standplaatswereld

      Dear Ekelenburg,
      I can only speak for myself here: I don’t know wether I subscribe to a certain school in anthropology (yet). In fact, this essay should be read as part of my personal search to what I want to do in anthropology. However, I think Ton nicely captured what I’m on about: the question why there’s so little exchange between anthropologists and philosophical anthropology.
      Greetings, Matthias

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