Book Review: Culture Wars: Context, Models and Anthropologists’ Accounts

JamesCultureCulture Wars:  Context, Models and Anthropologists’ Accounts provides students of anthropological and ethnographical research with a detailed illustrations of British and international accounts of critical social anthropology in the light of methodological issues.  The focus of the book is predominantly on culture and how it may be interpreted in various valid ways according to the researcher and the researched by employing a self-aware and critical stance about how knowledge is produced. South Africa, Germany and Greece are just some of the places explored in the book providing the reader with international scope on how best to understand critical social anthropology.  The book is helpful in allowing opportunity to reflect upon whose accounts are included in ethnographies, and how culture and context are interpreted by a diverse range of researchers working in international field settings.

The editors remind us that it goes without saying that contemporary scholars recognise the significance of the lenses which anthropologists and ethnographers use to study the lives of those they are interested in researching.  Still ethnography is necessary, they explain, for it is a “powerful means of analysing what it is to be human in all its multiplicity”. They then go onto place emphasis on the need to understand that field observations conducted through the lenses employed by social anthropologists are shaped firstly by his/her relations with those being researched, and secondly by the lived history the anthropologist/ethnographer brings with her to the field, and that influences the emerging relationships and observations.

The book’s premise is that the term culture has become taken for granted, and needs to be interrogated. Further, context too needs to be questioned, as this too is ever shifting and multiple in perspectives: “key ideas and practices are at once expressed and constituted somewhat differently by persons whose somewhat different histories produce different perspectives”.  Social processes in research, production of knowledge and relations between the researcher and the researched have inter-connections and mutual implications that contest previously theorised dichotomies and binaries of social anthropology such as culture v biology or collective v individualist.

Gerd Baumann’s chapter on the multi-ethnic area of Southall in London considers moral panics about Asian gangs.  Baumann shows how the wider discourses of international significance inter-relate to what happens in local contexts, for example by referring to Britain’s colonial legacy. My favourite chapter, because it resonates with my current research on Britishness in Bermondsey, is What about White People’s History?: Class, Race and Culture Wars in Twenty-first-Century Britain by Gillian Evans.  Evans argues for the urgent need to examine educational inequalities by giving social class significance when studying minority ethnic communities, and equally not neglecting the diversity amongst white working-class students, and therefore considering white ethnicities.  She tells us that black and Asian boys who are struggling at school are often suffering social class inequalities, and at the same time the diversity of white communities is ignored. Therefore the complex challenge is to understand how inequalities of race, social class, ethnicity and cultural background intersect in modern British society.  Both Baumann and Evans point towards the need to interrogate media and governmental agendas on interconnections between race, culture and social behaviour.

Sadia Habib is a PhD candidate in Educational Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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