Key Debates in Anthropology Edited by Tim Ingold General introduction Tim Ingold the nature of anthropological theory

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Part I
The presentations


To find oneself invited to propose what on the surface looks like a harmless orthodoxy, a matter of general consensus—which could be read as a modest claim that people differ from other animals—is not easy. The real proposition will no doubt be sprung by our opponents; indeed some may suspect that this debate has been designed back to front, and that we innocent defenders of the established tradition have been set up for an ambush. It seems likely that we shall be confronted with a substantive, if negative, counter-proposition: that human worlds are not culturally constructed, that they are rather given in the genetic inheritance and organically founded consciousness which we share with other animals, and that this truth is concealed from conventional anthropologists by their dominant concern with social and cultural phenomena. Those who advocate a more ‘biological’ approach in anthropology may well hope that we will take a well-trodden path in defending some of the older orthodoxies and tired paradigms of culture as system. We, however, prefer to take a fresh path in proposing the motion, seeking to focus not upon the abstract external form of cultural phenomena, but upon the human being as a cultural agent and as the culturally formed subject of experience.

Allow us immediately to concede that human beings are indeed organisms shaped by genetic transmission, with bodily systems and nervous structures comparable to those of some other creatures. In many ways the activities of human beings appear to parallel those of other organisms: especially in the co-operative patterns seen in the nurturing of young, the search for food and shelter, the establishment of control over territory and groups, and in the context of grooming, mating, communication through signalling and other forms of ‘consociality’. Like other creatures we are affected by the availability of water or food, by the intensity of heat or cold, and by the impact of disease—I do not need to extend this list; Roland Littlewood will elaborate later on questions of disease and pain. Let us also concede straight away the immense interest and potential importance of modern work on animal behaviour, and of the new philosophical writings on animals.

May we further clarify our position on ‘culture’. In the previous debate, the notion of ‘society’ as denoting a concrete entity which could carry a plural sense was rejected. Let us dispose immediately of the corresponding nominal form of ‘culture’ which, in the reified sense of a thing that can be possessed, as a whole, by you or me and made a mark of contrast with some faraway tribe, seems to be creeping back into anthropological discourse. In asking you to support the motion, we would point out that it is built not around the nominal form of ‘culture’, but rather its adverbial form, which is a very different matter. Acceptance of our arguments does not mean having to admit to any vulgarly positive notion of culture as a tangible object; rather the contrary, as that idea may well turn out to form part of the old-fashioned rationalism of some recent advocates of a more ‘biological’ approach.

Our emphasis is rather upon the irreducibly cultural character of the way in which human life is lived. By human we refer basically to aspects of the species Homo sapiens, even in this Latin scientific technicality, ‘wise’. As a limiting and ambivalent case, we would accept not the sociality of the bees or the birds, but the striking evidence that flowers, offerings and red ochre were used in Neanderthal burial rites. 3 At least since that time, we would argue, there has been a culturally constituted aspect or quality to all human action and experience. This aspect or quality, which inheres in any human world, cannot be separated out. The very notion of a ‘world’ implies some sort of coherence, if not as a simple integrated whole, then at least as an ensemble within which the possibility of cross-linkages of interpretation can be imagined; if the cultural element were withdrawn, separated or denied, the ensemble of fragmentary action and experience would fall apart.

Though the operations performed with hands, tools and eyes in the task of digging a hole may appear the same for an organism, whether that hole is for concealing treasure or for burying a child, the physical execution cannot be reasonably interpreted apart from a consideration of the purpose of the hole, which can only be understood culturally. And the purely behavioural observation of emotion, such as an account of the trembling and welling up of tears at a death, cannot distinguish between an actual event of death and an event pictured on the cinema screen.

Creatures other than human beings may well be seen to ‘grieve’ over a death, but only for us can such a reaction be triggered by what Wordsworth called that ‘inward eye’ as it contemplates non-events in memory, imagination and expectation while secretly weeping in the back row of the cinema. Consider the simpler case of hunger: the organic reaction of ‘mouth-watering’ is certainly set off in us with the smell of cooking or at the sight of food, but it is also, more complexly, triggered by the imagination and memory of food. More complexly still, perhaps, for the connoisseur—and we are all connoisseurs in a culturally constructed sense of the delights of the cuisines familiar to us—mouths water on reading a recipe for apple pie rather than one for a concoction of witchetty grubs, or vice versa.

I admit that my knowledge of modern biology comes largely from those of my students following an interdisciplinary course in human sciences. One told me recently that individuals of the human species have 98 per cent of their genes in common with chimpanzees, and that it thus follows that we are only 2 per cent human! It is no wonder that we find the new chimpanzee studies so fascinating; there is nothing like a twinge of self-recognition to make science, or history or myth for that matter, really gripping. For all that chimpanzees may be people too, I do wonder which small part or parts (maybe 2 per cent?) of the motion before us would not translate into any known chimpanzee tongue. Conceivably, given patient teachers, there would be little difficulty with a good part of it, even its casting in the dialectical form of a proposition to be questioned. ‘Non-chimp-fella build toy-globe?’ might plausibly be managed; but what of ‘culturally’? The tiny element finally resisting translation could turn out to be the adverbial ending of this word: indicating not a visible element or action strung with the others, but a quality and a key relation, hierarchically encompassing and giving sense to the whole.

Perhaps the 2 per cent divergence in our genes is not as trivial in significance as its proportion might suggest. The crucial capacity that it confers presumably lies behind our ability to grasp, remarkably early, the principles of grammar and syntax virtually as used by adults, in spoken or in sign language, not to mention the possibilities for education in metaphor, make believe, ambivalence, deception, double meaning, jokes and so on. From the earliest stages in the development of the child, perception and learning are matched by the development of imagination and memory. Work by Russian scientists on teaching children who are deaf-blind has shown that if this condition sets in very early, before tuition has started, a child will have no ‘memory’ on which to build; such children have therefore to be taught finger techniques as far as possible before they may become needed. Of one such child, the teachers explained that they were helping him ‘to construct his world’ by this educative preparation. Otherwise, it was implied, it would be too late for him to learn how to communicate with others.

Here we come to the nub of what is a ‘human’ world: there are other people in it, from whom we learn, and with whom meanings have to be negotiated. Robinson Crusoe was in some senses alone before he found his companion, but even so, he brought with him a full range of culturally generated possibilities for dealing with his environment, derived from previous dialectics of give and take with (now absent) others; and when he found his companion, he gave him a name which provisionally defined the way they would together begin to construct a new social world. No person faces nature raw and cultureless. Even the geologist, chipping away at the mountain, brings with her complex cultural tools beyond her hammer. The new information she seeks derives its significance from scholarly questions previously posed; she does not face the mountain alone. You might elect to imagine, for scientific purposes, a human world constructed from scratch, between linguistic and moral tabulae rasae; this, however, is not science, hard or soft, but undoubtedly would be fiction and thus legitimately part of culture by anybody’s definition!

Current social and cultural anthropology does not rely on a discrete conception of culture as an exclusively mental abstraction: recent writers have been able to find plenty of terms, some new and some refashioned from older usage, which draw ‘culture’ into the very heart of organic life, as it is lived by real people. Consider first the notion of discourse, which need not be limited to verbal exchanges, but can include non-verbal gesture and expression and even the communication of feelings; in its most serious sense it touches deeper levels of the circulation of systematically linked ideas about bodily life which would not necessarily be captured on a visitor’s tape recorder. Consider further the related notion of practice, which never loses touch with the pragmatic bodily life of action, but at the same time—in current usage—carries a deeply cultural sense of transmitted significance. Habitus too, a particular formulation offered by Bourdieu, 4 is a concept rooted in both ecology and bodily activity, but it identifies the forms of these organic modes of action and interaction as the loci of intellectual and symbolic signification. The transmission of complex and symbolically loaded forms of discourse or practice, at all levels of human activity, requires the systematic and sophisticated training of the body, as well as the cultivation of psychological and moral dispositions. This is especially clear in the case of some of the more abstract cultural arts such as music, dance and painting, for which long physical practice in the older, literal sense is absolutely necessary. Talal Asad has argued, moreover, for the primacy of sheer practice in the cultivation of a pious disposition by the medieval monk. 5 But even the humblest of human actions, as Mauss pointed out half a century ago in his essay on techniques of the body, 6 result from the body’s education and training: there is no culture-free mode of greeting, of eating, of making love, or even of the attainment of physical shape and size. Uduk villagers with whom I worked in the Sudan thought I had the hands and feet and teeth of a child, as I could not walk barefoot or weed the fields or crunch dry corn as they could. They thought me much younger than I was; twenty years of academic training was not evident to them.

Even more than one’s outward appearance, one’s inner consciousness of being an organism, I suggest, is not a given datum of nature, nor necessarily is it everywhere the same. It is of course a common human experience to become aware of one’s body, and of its sensations. But the sense of bodily presence is itself shaped by education, by training, language, and expectation; as well as by the continual discursive processes through which we interact with others. A person can scarcely conceive of him- or herself as possessing a warm heart, a hard head and a clear mind, except in a community of others understood as having similar potential. In the case of the Uduk, the loosely corresponding notions might be a cool liver or a full and therefore contented stomach from which to make calm decisions, and an alertness to various aspects of reality through dreams. 7 There is a growing anthropological sensitivity to the cultural constructions of persons themselves, in their social interaction, and we are beginning to learn more of the ways in which organic structures and sensations are understood and of how this understanding may shape experience—or at least discourse about experience—among peoples like the Ilongot as described by the Rosaldos, the Chewong as described by Signe Howell or the Avatip as described by Simon Harrison. 8 These ethnographers, like Marilyn Strathern in her comparative studies of New Guinea, 9 no longer find the person to be a detachable and unitary given element, an indivisible organism. There are internal and external divisions and connections, not simply unfolding from some general biological programme, but definitively specified through the educational transmission and re-enactment of culturally significant and variable forms.

The community life of other animals, I suggest, could be (and may well have been) described in terms of discourse, practice and habitus, but only at the expense of devaluing these terms as they are used of human life—in the same way that the term ‘culture’ itself has been devalued by similar applications. I remember attending a panel discussion, years ago, on the subject of ritual, which was intended to facilitate a meeting of minds on this topic between zoologists and anthropologists. 10 It was quite easy to find agreement on various definitions: Julian Huxley, Konrad Lorenz and Victor Turner were able to bracket the courtship dances of a wonderful variety of birds and animals together with Ndembu rites of passage, under some broad conception of ‘ritual’ as the marking of important relationships through the stylized repetition of formal non-utilitarian behaviour. So much agreement seemed possible, because so many terms had already slipped between the social sciences and animal ethology that the problem had almost appeared to vanish. (Students used to read out essays about human bonding pairs, and about swans getting married.) Language, for the participants in the panel discussion, did not clarify but rather cloaked the difficulty. There seemed at that time to be a dearth of words to bring out the strongly sensed difference in quality between non-human and human ritual, and I believe we are facing a similar problem today. If you dwell on the organic aspect of human activity, while applying the notion of culture to the behaviour of other animals, you have achieved the illusion of uniformity through linguistic sleight of hand; and you have created the need for further terminological revisions to keep the problem in focus.

I can only touch briefly on the vital matter of institutional and collective organization: on questions of political economy, of kings, states and armies, of the law, of wages and prices—all ‘culturally constructed’ aspects of the world impinging on and motivating any human organism-person. I can easily think of myself at times as a gatherer and collector of fruits and nuts, as though I were still wandering around the African forest, as I once used to do, learning to recognize and harvest various leaves, pods and roots, and on occasion limes and pawpaws. But in the supermarket every item has a price, every single head of lettuce is disfigured with a mechanically imprinted number restricting my choice—even more disappointingly so in the case of the limes and pawpaws. Food gathering as a direct encounter with what is offered, or ‘afforded’, by the environment, may be one thing; what I myself can afford in the environment of my food gathering is an entirely different matter. I do not confront it as a consuming organism, but as a paid employee, a very different type of consumer. If I pocketed a pineapple I might end up in court. Can any human beings, even if untouched by the state and capitalism, and even if living largely as hunter-gatherers, seriously be held by modern anthropology to be totally unconstrained by forms of social and political economy? Even egalitarian sharing is a hard system, and one that is no less collectively ordered and culturally inscribed than any other. It is a romantic and naïve illusion, if one with a long genealogy, to suppose that groups of real hunter-gatherers are simply free-floating individuals working out their relations with trees, armadillos and each other from first principles at each encounter.

Organic life does not create persons: they have to be specified in language, in symbol and in law. The fact that the definition of personhood is so universally open to challenge merely confirms the essentially cultural character of the concept. The historical record is full of contested claims to personhood in one form or another, because the notion of personhood is itself inseparable from the notion of moral agency and legal rights. An element of ought rather than is always enters in. No rights are given in organisms: rights are culturally constructed before they can be extended to organisms of any kind whatsoever. Moral, jural, medical and divine arguments are adduced in pursuit of claims over personhood, and in the political struggle to impose one definition over another. When does a person begin in time, or end? When is a person merely a vegetable? Is a slave a person; or a child, a woman, a foreigner, members of another race? In a world based on the pragmatics of organic life alone, would the rights of biologically damaged beings be recognized? What of the rights of the unborn, and of the dead for that matter? What agreements about these matters could be made in the absence of writing or other culturally constructed forms of authorization, of verbal or ritual contract, pledge or promise? And yet, though we are organisms and our unique genes are so few, the greater part of our waking time, and even of our dreams, is taken up with worries about such matters, bearing on the rights and wrongs that we feel have touched our sense of personhood.

In a recent paper, Tim Ingold has launched a rearguard action against the biologists who, in their pursuit of hard science, have so stressed the determination of behaviour by genes or DNA as to have virtually abandoned the ‘organism’. 11 We are entirely in sympathy with him in wishing to recapture for a broader anthropology those other creatures, especially the intelligent and furry ones like dogs and chimpanzees whom we have made our own in many respects (even reconstructing them culturally in our own image). Ingold may well deplore the reduction of the organism to its genes, on the grounds that the character of the whole, being more than the sum of the genes, is lost; but similarly we deplore the seductive language games of those who might wish to reduce us to mere organisms. Following a happy formulation of Steven Collins, 12 let us rather accept that while we are nothing if not embodied, we human beings have scarcely ever been able to define ourselves as mere body without a further completing element. In folk conceptions, as well as in philosophical, theological and socio-legal thought, there has always been a variable ‘something’, other than the organic, to make up a person; persons in general are completely definable only as ‘body-plus…’—and anthropology cannot ignore this.

In asking you to support the motion, that human worlds are culturally constructed, we do not rule real people out of anthropology. On the contrary, we insist that real people are included as such, as ‘body-plus beings, not stripped of education, memory and imagination to the nakedness of the mere organism, the human being manqué. Only pseudo-science could set up such a bogus figure as the ‘person-minus ’, and construct an explanatory anthropological system around it. But then elements of pseudo-science, and pseudo-history, are built into all known human worlds; eventually rejected as myth, they come to be seen for what they are—cultural constructions.


The motion for this debate invites comment on all four of its key terms, and I intend to focus on each in turn. First, what is implied about the condition of being human? Second, what does it take for there to be one world, or many worlds? Third, what role, if any, does culture play in the process of world formation? And finally, what is meant by speaking of this process as one of construction? I should make it clear from the start that my objections are not so much to the proposition in itself as they are to the kind of question to which it represents one possible answer. Thus the arguments I shall adduce could serve equally well to oppose the contrary thesis that ‘humans inhabit a given world of nature’. What I reject is the very conceptual paradigm that forces us, in answering the questions it sets, to choose between animality and humanity, between one world and many worlds, between nature and culture, and between the given and the constructed. As I shall show, these four dichotomies are linked by a common, cognitivist orientation that contrives to disembed individual human beings from the relational matrix of their existence in the world, only to re-embed this world inside their individual heads. Having exposed the root assumptions of this orientation, I shall proceed to put forward an alternative view which restores people to where they belong, in an active practical engagement with constituents of the real world.

Although the motion does not explicitly say so, it carries the very strong implication—which I am sure most of its supporters would take for granted—that non-human worlds are not culturally constructed. In other words, the cultural construction of reality is supposed to be

uniquely human, a fundamental aspect of the human condition as opposed to that of the animal. What, then, can we say about animal worlds? What are they like? It is commonly assumed, by zoologists as much as by anthropologists, that non-human animals live enclosed in a purely physical world. As beings of that world they are themselves physical objects. Each animal, population or species, according to a well-worn ecological metaphor, occupies a niche, a little corner of the world set up in advance, to which it has fitted itself through a process of evolutionary adaptation.

But this description of the animal in its niche, like that of the statue tastefully situated in an alcove in the wall, is couched in the language and from the point of view of the disinterested observer, presumed human. The statue, of course, does not have a point of view: the world does not exist for it; rather, both the statue and the alcove are components of a world that exists for me. By the same token, an account of the animal in its niche denies the active, perceptual engagement of that animal with its environment. Though I can describe the environment of the animal as it is presented to me (just as I can describe the animal itself), there can be no environment, indeed no world, for the animal. What I can do, that the animal supposedly cannot, is to take a step back from the physical dimension of existence, and to witness life in this dimension as a spectacle. It is to this spectacle, as presented to a subject disengaged from it, that we commonly refer by the concept of 'nature'. Indeed, a world can only be 'nature' for a being that does not belong there.

If the concept of nature thus implies a disengagement from the world, then the possibility of disengagement, in turn, is taken to be the hallmark of the condition of humanity. Human uniqueness is supposed to lie in precisely this: that whereas the differences among animal species are differences in nature, humans are different in being half in nature, half out. We are in nature to the extent that we are organisms with bodies, which depend on a throughput of materials and energy for their maintenance and reproduction. We are out of nature to the extent that we are persons with minds, with which we are able to reflect upon and represent the circumstances of our bodily experience. This reflexive process, according to conventional anthropological wisdom, is one of investing experience with meaning, and the source of all meaning is culture. As Geertz would have it, culture consists in 'the imposition of an arbitrary framework of symbolic meaning upon reality’. 13 What does this view of culture, and of the human condition, suggest about the world (or worlds) we live in?

There is, apparently, a real world out there, for it is upon this that our cultural meanings are said to be imposed. Yet this world, prior to its ordering through cultural categories, is mere flux, devoid of form and significance. To grasp its essence is the objective of the physical sciences, for which ‘real’ reality is that which exists independently of the acting and perceiving subject. This is not, however, the world that people see and know (and I shall leave aside here the implied question of how it is that physical scientists can nevertheless be people). For it is supposed that keyed into every human community is a particular symbolic schema, encoded in language and validated by verbal agreement, in terms of which the flux of raw sensory experience is organized into the enduring shapes and patterns that subjects claim to perceive in the world around them. Since different communities share different schemas, the members of each will perceive different things, even though the physical reality with which they are confronted may be one and the same. Thus it is that upon the one, universal world of nature are superimposed the many, particular worlds of culture. Human beings, it seems, live a split-level existence, with their bodies on one level and their minds on another. Anthropological literature reveals a fair crop of different terms that have been used to signal this dichotomy, among them ‘real’ versus ‘perceived’, ‘operational’ versus ‘cognized’ and, perhaps most notoriously, ‘etic’ versus ‘emic’. 14

What all of these conceptual oppositions have in common is the idea that whereas the first term pertains to a given world, the second pertains to a world that is constructed. I want you to pay attention to this notion of construction. It implies the working up of some raw material into a finished product, an imposition of form on to substance. More particularly, it implies that the form is programmed in advance of the creative process it directs, and by which it is simply revealed in the material. This metaphor of construction plays a crucial and often unacknowledged part in our thought, and not only in anthropology. In biology, for example, it is clearly evident in the notion of genes as forming a programme which directs the ‘construction’ of the organism. In anthropology, culture has tended to play the role that the DNA is made to play in biology, but the constructionist logic is just the same. The raw material consists of sensations, registered by our receptor organs by virtue of our bodily immersion in the physical world. Once picked up, these sensations are despatched to the brain where something rather remarkable happens, for the mind evidently gets to work on them, arranging them into some kind of configuration, such that the owner of the mind can claim to see a world of clearly recognizable and distinguishable objects. Thus the sensory input is constructed by the mind into images, or percepts, and it is culture, of course, that provides the template or building plan. In short, nature furnishes the substance, culture the form.

I have shown how the proposition that ‘human worlds are culturally constructed’ divides every human being into two parts, of which one is object to the other as subject, how it divides subjectively imagined worlds from an objectively given reality, form from substance, culture from nature. In turning now to the positive part of my contribution, which is to put in place an alternative perspective that would transcend these dichotomies, I intend to proceed in reverse order, disposing first of the dichotomy between the given and the constructed, and going on to do the same for those between nature and culture, between the one world and the many, and between the human and the animal.

Consider what happens in perception. For the cognitivist the human body, immersed in its physical surroundings, is but a passive register for the sensory stimuli with which it is continually bombarded. Hence the only activity in perception is mental activity, the building of raw sense data into structures. I reject this Cartesian distinction between sensation and intellection. Perception, I hold, involves the whole person, in an active engagement with his or her environment. 15 We perceive the world by moving around in it and exploring its possibilities. Seeing, hearing and touching, far from being passive reactions of the organism, are ways of actively and intentionally attending to the world—they are what people do. Perception, then, is a process of action; moreover, it is a process that is continually going on. There are no end-states in the form of images or percepts. If we ask ‘What is the product of perception?’, the answer can only be ‘the perceiver’. In rather the same way, the product of consumption is the consumer. Like consumption, perception is a mode of engagement with the world, not a mode of construction of it.

This contrast between construction and engagement might be more simply represented as one between building and dwelling. It is by being dwelt-in, not by being constructed, that some portion of the real world becomes an environment for people. In opposing the motion, I want therefore to replace the building perspective of cultural constructionism with what might be called a ‘dwelling perspective’. I do not of course mean to deny that humans build. We do indeed construct designs and impose them upon the world. My contention, however, is that building is encompassed within dwelling rather than vice versa. In other words, far from dwelling within a built world, we build within a dwelt-in world. 16 Indeed, how could it be otherwise? If all human life were circumscribed within the parameters of one or another cultural project, whence comes each project? Only the conventions of fiction and ethnographic texts afford the illusion of such closure. Real life has no authors save the persons who are living it, and these persons, if they would build, must already dwell. Thus every act of building is but a moment in a continuous process of dwelling. This process, as I shall now show, is one through which persons and their environments are reciprocally constituted, each in relation to the other.

Imagine a house. It is, from one point of view, a feature of the physical world, constructed to a design that is perhaps standard for a particular community. In that sense, it may be regarded as a building. But that is not how it is experienced by the people who live therein, and for whom it represents the most familiar part of their everyday environment. For them, it is not just a house, it is home; not just a building but a dwelling. So how does a house become a home? Not, I argue, by assimilating its physical features to a symbolic representational blueprint for the organization of domestic space, but rather by incorporating those features—walls, doors, windows, fixed furnishings and so on—into a characteristic pattern of day-to-day activities. Thus it is the very engagement of persons with the objects of their domestic surroundings, in the course of their life activities, that turns the house into a home. As the embodiment of these activities, the home environment is forever evolving along with the lives of its inhabitants. It is, if you will, a kind of monument to their endeavours, though with the proviso that it is never complete. Like the life of persons, the formation of the environment is always in the nature of ‘work in progress’.

Though I have chosen, as an example, something that we normally think of as an artefact, all that I have said could apply equally well to some part of the physical landscape occupied—say—by a group of hunters and gatherers who have not sought to modify it to any significant extent. Indeed, the distinction we tend to draw between the natural and the artificial, between those parts of the physical world that have not and those that have been modified through the imposition of cultural design, is relevant only within the framework of the building perspective. Again, it is through dwelling in a landscape, through the incorporation of its features into a pattern of everyday activities, that it becomes home to hunters and gatherers. As such, the landscape is visible and durable testimony to the lives of previous generations of people who, in traversing it, have in a sense inscribed themselves into it. It follows that to sever the links that bind people to their environment is to cut them off from the historical past that has made them who they are. Yet this is precisely what orthodox culture theory has done, in giving recognition to the historical quality of human works only by attributing them to projects of cultural construction opposed to, and merely superimposed upon, an ahistorical nature.

The world in which we dwell, then, is a world which comes into being as we act in it, and in which we come into being as, acting in it, we also perceive it. It is not a given world of nature, nor is it a constructed world of culture, it is rather what I wish to call an environment. In so doing, I mean to establish a clear distinction between the environment and the physical world (or ‘nature’). The latter, as I have already shown, can only be apparent to the detached, indifferent observer. We may speak of it as ‘reality of’. The environment, by contrast, is ‘reality for’—the real world constituted in relation to the organism or person whose environment it is. This is the world that we perceive, through our active engagement with it. The separation of nature and culture, as domains respectively of matter and mind that humans in their activities must perforce seek to bridge, far from existing ab initio, is a consequence of disengagement, of the turning of attention, in thought, reflexively inwards on the self rather than outwards on the world. Now although humans are undoubtedly capable of adopting such a contemplative stance from time to time, no one—not even a monk or a philosopher—can permanently live like that. As Whitehead (himself a philosopher) once remarked, ‘from the moment of birth we are immersed in action, and can only fitfully guide it by taking thought’. 17 Or to reiterate my earlier point, he who would rebuild the world in his imagination must already dwell in it, and in the dwelling the world is no longer nature but an environment.

This point brings me to the question of the one world and the many. From the perspective of dwelling, the dichotomy is meaningless. For the dwelt-in world is a continuous field of relationships, unfolding through time. We could think of it as an unbroken landscape of variation. To be sure, different positions in the landscape will afford different views. But in the cognitivist perspective of cultural constructionism, the real world is treated as a thing that people look at, rather than a field that they live in. The world view is no longer a view in the world but a view of the world. Difference, then, ceases to be a function of positioning within a total relational field, and is attributed instead to arbitrary variations in the ‘building plan’ that individuals bring with them to the task of reconstructing the one given world inside their multiple heads. It is this inversion, by which the relational context of being-in-the-world is, as it were, turned ‘outside in’ to become a cognitive attribute of mind, that has given us the logic of the universal and the particular, the one and the many. For reduced to mere substance in the service of projects of cultural construction, the real world becomes ‘all the same’, indifferent to the manifold forms that our minds are supposed to impose upon it.

Finally, I return to the point from which I began: the dichotomy between the human and the animal. I have already shown that if the existence of a world for some living being depends upon an act of cultural construction, and if humans are uniquely capable of such acts, then there can be no world for the animal. However, by thinking of perception in the way I have just outlined it is easy to see that non-human animals can constitute their environments, just as humans can, through the very fact of their dwelling in the world. There is no fundamental difference here. It is in their capacity to construct imagined worlds that humans surely differ from other animal species, and in this both language and culture are directly implicated. But before you rush to interpret this remark as a total capitulation, let me remind you that such imagining is not a necessary prelude to our contact with reality, but rather an epilogue, and an optional one at that. We do not have to think the world in order to live in it, but we do have to live in the world in order to think it.

This leads me to wonder what kind of world those of you who support the motion think you are living in. Is it a world of the gods who, dwelling in the firmament, are constructing worlds for us humans to live in, and who—unlike ordinary mortals whose worlds are circumscribed by those constructions—can see the ground of nature beneath our feet? The proposers of this motion, I conclude, are either divine or incoherent. Perhaps they are both. On the grounds that a vote for divinity is a vote for incoherence, I urge you to reject the motion.



It seems that the motion I am seconding has insidiously come to be seen as the status quo of anthropology, our point of definition against vulgar materialists, biologists and applied anthropologists. The very notion of ‘cultural construction’—or ‘constructionism’ as my psychologist colleagues disdainfully call it—seems to have become our official emblem, the popular orthodoxy that justifies our discipline to others. Undergraduates and students of social work are fed on a diet of (to take some titles from my shelves) ‘The social construction of sexuality’‘, The social construction of homosexuality’, The social construction of illness’, and so forth. The very tiresomeness of it all has, I trust, impelled all right thinking people to align themselves against the motion, against this apparent orthodoxy.

Now, beyond its sheer tedium, there are indeed some problems with the construction industry, particularly the practical or vocational. One anthropologist I know landed a plum job at a prestigious medical institute to study patients’ conceptualizations of illness, in order that medical services might be delivered more effectively. She caused serious problems on her first day by affirming that the doctors’ own nosological systems were just as culturally given as those of their patients, just as arbitrary from the point of view of the phenomena in question. Similarly, were a medical anthropologist to arrive at a World Health Organization project on children with AIDS, he would be unlikely to enhance his utility by proclaiming that AIDS is a ‘cultural construction’.

No surprise here. If everything becomes culturally constructed, surely we would find this world rather vapid, aetiolated, one in which we as individuals have no firm point for practical action, in which we merely strut around in a series of historically given tropes, doubtless of some intellectual elegance yet missing that immediacy of pain, of struggle, of interaction, the raw material of lived experience. If sex simply becomes gender, can I still connect? The buzz has gone. That sense of revelation which we experienced when we realized that our taken-for-granted little worlds were actually the representation of things much more interesting (a sense of revelation which I would argue, in a rather old-fashioned way, is still the source of the emotive power of social anthropology), has now become dissipated into an insipid ‘official version’.

Are we fossilized in some position which seems not so much ‘cultural’ as one of ‘high culture’—something metropolitan and Oxbridge, of the Senior Common Room where some apparently have the leisure to contemplate an elegant assemblage of recursive signifiers? It is perhaps time to descend to the market-place of ultimate reality, to some demotic world of dirt and mess, of accident and happenstance, of creolizing confusions, fluctuations and upsets, of societies in disintegration, of pain and arbitrary terror, of the abuse of children, and women, and men. Where are your settled societies of yesteryear fresh from colonial pacification? Where their neat correspondence between individual experience and the social order?

If I have caricatured the debate, some practical dissatisfaction with what is a particular conception of anthropological orthodoxy does indeed urge us to make contact with tackier, earthier areas: ecology, biology, sickness, something (if I may dare to say so) more ‘natural’, real, experiential, messy, elemental, innocent. Perhaps we should even be reaching out to some Gemeinschaft, effervescence, communitas or whatever. As in Dr Johnson’s attempted refutation of Berkeley, we might wonder just how ‘culturally constructed’ is the experience of the child dying of AIDS. The very emphasis on ‘culture’ seems like a betrayal. The area of my own entry into anthropology, transcultural psychiatry, became moribund precisely because of this emphasis on the culture of Black people, rather than on the culture of interaction, on its creation through conflict.

Take this word ‘construction’. Construction is not invention or creation ex nihilo. Its resonances are clearly those of building. The bricks are there as bricks: they are not yet a house. The house ‘is’ bricks, not just ‘of bricks. The bricks are ‘made into’ a house but they are still bricks. Houses and bricks are clearly not things of quite the same order. If we take the figuration like this, we are of course potentially in trouble, for what then are these bricks? They are given already in experience. Or are they?

I think we have to distinguish between the child opening up the box of bricks already given, and the process by which societies develop bricks and houses in tandem. For the former, the bricks are given in experience. They are ‘real’. They are ‘there’. All you can do, all you have to do, is to decide to build a Georgian house, or a Victorian Gothic house, or a Dutch-gabled house (though it helps to have the curvy bits to build a Dutch house, you can do without). This is a model house: an anthropological model, and one which Tim Ingold demolishes as ‘culturally constructed’. For actual builders in history, there are, of course, no such givens, except in as much as they take up in society the notion of bricks as a potential house—or as walls, roads, projectiles, pillows or conceptual art. To try to study from the outside how bricks and houses come into being is conjectural, an instance of the historical fallacy; every time we try to model it we ourselves end up using a child’s set of bricks. If human worlds are culturally constructed in some more meaningful way, then this simplistic model is not one of cultural construction.

It is easy to dismiss, perhaps, because we are not ourselves bricks. Bricks are already a social given. Let us try something messier—physical experience, our lives as embodied selves, pain, rhythm, excretion, sex, sickness, death. These are the bodily experiences through which by empathy and action I am embedded in myself, and embedded in another way through my daily work as a doctor. Surely the way our bodies are ‘constructed’, the way they respond to perturbations, the very growth of cancer cells, are not dependent on human knowledge? And this is our world. To say of something which is lived-in that it is not culturally constructed is to say that it takes the same pattern for us independently of our apperception of it. It just goes on there, somewhere, in an uncertainly knowable natural world; if we cause it to happen without directly conceiving of it (say contracting AIDS through unfortunate sexual activity), then we cannot say we ‘constructed’ it, any more than a brick we accidently dislodged and then feel on our heads is a house, or even at that moment (for us) a brick.

Now, doctors have a term for these physically understood goings-on, a word that places them firmly in the biological world, a world which we too inhabit—though not just by virtue of being human. It would be difficult to disagree with Tim Ingold when he tells us 18 that this capacity to be human is itself part of our life as sensate organisms. And it would be equally hard to quarrel with the position that our very knowledge of the world, of the type we call ‘biological’ or ‘natural’, only takes shape as cultural institutions such as biological science, ecology, anthropology, as our particular instruments. Note that I say ‘as’ particular instruments, not ‘through’ particular instruments. Ingold argues that our dualistic vision prevents us from seeing the interaction between ourselves and our environment. I would rather argue that the very distinction between ourselves and our environment is already arbitrary. This is not idealism: obviously everything is natural, and everything is social. These are not additive qualities, not types of stuff. They are procedures, types of knowledge, embedded in certain very definite historical contexts. 19 The natural world and the social world are not different places but different maps.

One map, however, claims a greater transparency: that of the natural sciences. Because it examines our guts and pains and crops, because it claims these to be ‘there’, it conceives of itself as what it studies. And I think this is also true of Ingold’s notion of direct perception, in which we discover, we do not invent. 20

The word doctors use for the perturbations in our bodily selves is disease. Disease, they say, is real. It is there, visible or not, like it or not. It is to illness as bricks are to houses, a given script out of which we may attempt to construct personal life with the bits to hand. It is not a periodic table or a star map, but the elements and planets themselves. The fact that we use this term ‘disease’ in an extended sense to talk of social pathology, diseased societies and so on, does no more than demonstrate its powerful, everyday, experiential reality.

There are some problems here. Such an extended notion of disease is really no more (or less) unreasonable, or rhetorical, than the restricted use of it. Both are grounded alike in our assumptions as embodied social beings. Since the seventeenth century, Western thought has employed a now classical distinction between a human world of agency and a natural world of causal necessity. 21 ‘Pathology’ in the strong sense is supposedly out there in the natural world as ‘disease’, independently of our apperception of it. It is experientially manifest to us through a constructed ‘illness’, depending on our bodily states, values, expectations and the possibility of action, but it can be directly observed through the procedures of natural science, including ecology.

Yet disease is nevertheless some sort of undesirable state of affairs in the natural world, even if possibly independent of any necessary human apperception. How is this undesirability conceived? We have a variety of choices between entities and processes, between functional balance, anatomical change, evolutionary and developmental processes, or even deviations from ideal norms of health or autonomy. The conceptualizations themselves are not of course given by the subject matter but are selected within a social context. A particular pathology may be understood as all of them. The majority of these conceptualizations return us to the personal experience of illness, to pain and disability. Such experiences are themselves constructed in that pain, for instance, is not necessarily experienced as an illness or indeed as an unalloyed evil.

Where does the notion of ‘disease’ (in either a strong or a weak sense) get us? Does it entail some practical constraints on the limits of the phenomenon we could study and alter, defining ‘it’ as a phenomenon? Certainly. Does it entail some notion that the phenomenon is ultimately ‘there’? This hardly seems necessary unless we feel unable to act without assuming our therapeutic procedures must have the power of controverting some almost inevitable, natural order of things. Through identification and extension we recognize ‘pathology’ in animals akin to ourselves (a recognition essential to veterinary medicine), but the limits of our sympathy fade when applied to unicellular organisms. Are phages the diseases of sick bacteria? In what environment can the tapeworm develop most fruitfully? An old medical adage goes that ‘it may be a disease for you; for the tapeworm it is a problem of ecology.’ The moral is that our idea of disease is radically rooted in our human world, in our embodied social being. There are no diseases out there, only perceived processes, some of which we feel we like (health), some of which we do not (disease). The choice is not given by the data. It is arbitrary. It is, if I may venture to say so, socially constructed. Disease is not there, like it or not; it is there because we do not like it. Contrawise, we are disease, not just in the sense that we share certain nucleotide sequences with bacteria, but also in that we are descended from among the limited and selected survivors of innumerable epidemics in which survival was determined by antigenic complementarity with bacteria or other micro-organisms. We are ourselves because we are diseases.

To reduce the notion of cultural construction to playing around with a set of toy bricks (a straw hut? 22 ) is absurd. Any intelligent reading of our human actions affirms that we create the bricks as well as the house. To deny cultural construction is to suggest that we can really experience the world out there as it is. Some hope. We determine only in part what we call our environment, but we determine our experience of it, our human world. ‘It’ determines us, we ‘are’ it, but this ‘it’ is only an ‘it’ through human procedures, shared with our fellows. And these procedures are never innocent.

If the dualistic distinction between organism and environment, between the self’s illness and its disease, between the human and the world, is an arbitrary cultural product, then so is any idea that they can interact. To take up Wendy James’s culinary idiom, we are not only cutting up the cake in various ways, we are also doing the cooking. I am not sure that I can ever know what the environment is, but I think I can know how Tim Ingold constructs it.


When I was young my ambition was to master the intricacies of the great fugue at the heart of Bach’s sonata in A minor for solo violin. Thirty years later I am still struggling with the piece. Not much culture has been constructed as a result, but instead I have acquired a comprehensive knowledge of the thought-provoking world of errors and mistakes. This leads me to wonder whether social life is as routinely impregnated with clumsiness as my violin playing. If it is, then it seems to me that we should pay as much attention to the question of how life ‘flows’—of how social agents recover from mistakes and random disturbances and lurch onwards without their whole performance grinding to a halt—as to the notion of cultural construction. My problem with cultural construction is that it implies building according to a plan, as if each and every social performance were a skilled realization of an underlying text, score or structural blueprint. My fear is that in our enthusiasm for the Samuel Smiles’s self-build philosophy of social life we will fail to think enough about improvisation. Cultural construction may be fine for professional anthropologists, who make a living by having something to de-construct. But how does it help in contexts—societies wrecked by war or famine, for example—where folk need to move on, where dextrous improvisation must be the order of the day?

From my perspective, this debate is taking place at cross-purposes, in that our opponents seem to think that to query their constructive approach to culture is necessarily to advance the claims, as an alternative, of some kind of genetic or environmental determinism. That is not my intention. What troubles me about cultural construction is the underlying notion that human worlds are arrived at by stepping out of time and out of our bodies, and that we can in such a condition self-consciously build something—as if ‘by taking thought’ we could ‘add one inch to our stature’. The reality seems to me very different—we do not construct, we perform. And in order to perform efficiently, or even to perform at all, we have to live within our limitations. We have to come to terms with our bodies. Hence my enthusiasm for Tim Ingold’s notion that the word ‘dwelling’ rather than ‘construction’ better captures the sense of life-as-lived that he and I are anxious to defend, and my distaste for the appalling arrogance (or so it seems to me) of the notion that, as Berger and Luckmann have it, ‘people make themselves’. 23 Incidentally, in reexamining their classic text, The social construction of reality, I was intrigued to find that they devote considerable effort to defining and discussing the terms ‘social’ and ‘reality’, but are much more vague about what they mean by ‘construction’, and how it is supposed to work. (Their book is altogether a characteristic 1960s’ text: material constraints are firmly features of the past, and the human world is a tabula rasa for cultural transaction. In this context they may have felt no need to give the notion of ‘construction’ a very sharp analytical cutting edge.) Perhaps it will be objected that we are overly concerned about what, after all, is only a loose metaphor. My answer would be that loose metaphors are often the most powerfully problematic notions of all, since they are indiscriminate in what they block out of our field of vision.

In recent years, I have spent some time studying agricultural research institutions and trying to understand, in particular, how plant breeders arrive at their decisions. They face a series of dilemmas not unrelated to the issue at the heart of the present debate. Outside observers (at the outset myself included) tend to assume that plant breeders ‘construct’ improved plant types according to a blueprint supplied by Mendelian genetics—that in effect, having taken apart existing plants to discover how they work, they are free to imagine and build a better plant than any already existing. Only at this point (according to this ‘de-constructive’ account) does the breeder slip back into the mainstream of agrarian reality to carry out tests to confirm the value of the new variety in question.

The assumption that breeders are free to ‘engineer’ plants according to genetic blueprints—the root of a number of complaints by social scientists, perhaps misled by the wilder prophets of bio-technology, about the Green Revolution—is wrong on at least two major counts. First ‘a great deal of biological variation is not discontinuous and not amenable to any simple particulate interpretation’ 24 of a Mendelian kind. Plant breeders work as much with polygenic material as with major genes. Only in the latter case is ‘classification by reliably expressed phenotypic effect’ feasible. Second, at least as far as in-breeding plants

such as barley and rice are concerned, it is logistically very difficult to set up a sufficiently broad-based statistical test of (say) all crosses of F5 lines so as reliably to identify all promising lines (however ‘promise’ be defined). Impossibly large amounts of replication at different sites and over different seasons would be needed to identify all significant genotype-environment (GE) interactions, for example. This leads Simmonds 25 to an ‘inescapable’ if ‘rather discouraging conclusion’ that ‘in practice, breeders discard as many families as they dare on general field characters and are guided by general experience, instinct and’ “eye” in effecting some kind of reasonable balance between numbers of surviving families and intensity of exploitation of each’ (my emphasis). He adds that ‘most breeders would agree, I think, that selection is often little better than random and none would care to bet that he had never thrown away an excellent family or line’. (Ethnographers working within reach of plant breeding stations sometimes have stories to recount of the corollary—of a judicious ‘theft’ of material discarded by breeders that later reappears as a successful local selection.) In short, then, plant breeders live with and shape germplasm as best they can—in Tim Ingold’s terms they ‘dwell’ with it—but they are not ‘in charge’. Plant breeding is an intelligent awareness of evolutionary principles, not a biological branch of the cultural construction industry.

That anthropologists and other social scientists should suppose otherwise—as clearly they do in their writings on the Green Revolution - is an example of a characteristic tendency to overestimate the extent to which human environments (behavioural, material-cultural and geographical) can be ‘engineered’ as distinct from ‘shaped’. This is the nub of the distinction we wish to draw between the notion of ‘constructing’ human worlds, and that of ‘dwelling’ therein. But if Tim Ingold and I are considered to be flirting with old-style environmental determinism at this point, the deflationary references of our opponents to environment as an also-ran of human existence suggest that they share something in common with the heroic self-build world view espoused by the prophets of muscular bio-technology—an odd position for those supposedly fearful of a tendency towards biological reductionism.

I understand the seductive attractions of the cultural construction approach. As self-appointed interpreters of human worlds, anthropologists want to be in a position plausibly to de-construct: to show how the system functions, to reveal the inner logic of symbols, to show how the performance was ‘put together’. But if social life (as distinct from its tropes—ritual set pieces, and the like) is work-in-progress, how can we pretend to exhume the blueprint upon which, supposedly, it is based? How could we ever know that human worlds were culturally constructed, if there is no grand design, and if human worlds never approach completion? One of the reasons Nietzsche thought music was such a poignant expression of life was that it helps to reconcile us to the absence of teleology. Manifestly, the purpose of a piece of music is not to arrive at the end! Life moves from where we find ourselves, from where we pick up the beat. The issue is how to move on from here. For many people, perhaps for most of the time, ‘decoding’ plans is an implausible or unhelpful source of ideas about where to move next, and about how to make such moves. (The difficulty is a bit like trying to provide a text-book account of how to ride a bicycle, or to fly a kite—the stream in which human worlds are carried is no more ‘constructed’ than the breeze!) But where might we turn for better, more helpful metaphors? Perhaps that currently fashionable word ‘trope’ (an interpolation in plainsong) serves to point us in the right direction, by reminding us of the value of music as a source of fruitful analogies through which to begin to grasp the flow of cultural phenomena.

A fine example of how anthropology might benefit from a more ‘musical’ approach to theory is to be found in a recent paper by Jane Guyer 26 on the division of labour and the rhythms of household life. Here she develops an extended musical metaphor, based on notions of polyrhythm and polymetre, to cope with the way in which lives within the same household can be highly differentiated but at the same time not necessarily in open conflict or disarray (men and women dancing to different beats). Her paper represents a striking and potentially very productive convergence of interest, apparent in recent work by anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, concerning the issue of the relationship of musical experience to social and ecological time. One of the most stimulating of these contributions from the musicological side is Chernoff’s book on West African musical sensibilities: ‘a drum in an African ensemble derives its power and becomes meaningful not only as it cuts and focuses the other drums but also as it is cut and called into focus by them…rhythm is interesting in terms of its potential to be affected by other rhythms…. 27 Waterman, in his ethnography of juju music, sees this musicological observation as a key to understanding Yoruba social philosophy: ‘In Yoruba thought, power (agbara) is also a gestalt process generated through relationships. A person becomes powerful only if he or she can maintain a broad network of willing supporters.’ In Waterman’s account Yoruba social life depends crucially on ‘drumming up support’ (in a quite literal sense). ‘Juju performance does not merely represent society: good juju is good social order’ 28 —‘sweet life’, as they say in many parts of West Africa.

Here, however, I need to make clear that in calling for a more sustained ‘musical’ approach to the study of human worlds, I draw a sharp distinction between the metaphoric usages of ‘musicians’ such as Guyer, and the recourse to formalistic analytic devices by the ‘music critics’ among the anthropologists, as for example in the work of Lévi-Strauss 29 —from my standpoint a case of ‘constructivism’ at its most arid! In place of ‘cultural construction’ I would call for what the economist Jacques Attali—in an audacious essay on the political economy of music—calls ‘composition’, which he regards as the ‘negation of the division of roles and labour as constructed by the old codes’. For him ‘composition is not the same as the [old] material abundance, that petit-bourgeois vision of an atrophied communism having no other goal than the extension of the bourgeois spectacle to all of the proletariat. It is the individual’s conquest of his own body and potential.’ 30

I should make it clear that my appeal for a more ‘musical’ anthropology does not entail a return to the approach of Bourdieu, despite his frequent reversion to musical metaphor- ‘conductorless orchestration’ and his claims to have dissolved the false opposition of rule and improvisation. Wrapped in the sticky webs of collapsed signification—habitus—Bourdieu’s human agents are reduced to the status of Bayesian operators whose development has been arrested. The sphere of ‘scientific probabilities’ is counterposed to the social world in which there is ‘the propensity to privilege early experiences’. This is a world in which there are no real surprises (and no scope for musicality)—‘the conditioned and conditional freedom habitus secures is as remote from a creation of unpredictable novelty as it is from a simple mechanical reproduction of the initial conditioning’. 31 But why then, we might ask, is the world such a surprising place?

I can think of no better way to conclude than to quote from a poem—The Hedger’—by the gassed-mad poet-musician Ivor Gurney. Written in the City of London Mental Hospital, Stone House, Dartford, some time during the 1920s, the poem is dedicated to the skills of the hedgers Gurney knew in his troubled wanderings in Gloucestershire after the First World War, and celebrates the ‘musical’ skills through which we all must learn to dwell in a world not of our making. Gurney pictures ‘this gap-mender, of quiet courage unhastening’ coping with his task by picking up the rhythm and pulse of the task in hand:

…his quick moving
Was never broken by any danger, his loving
Use of the bill or scythe was most deft, and clear—
Had my piano-playing or counterpoint
Been so without fear

Then indeed fame had been mine of most bright outshining;

But never had I known singer or piano player
So quick and sure in movement as this hedge-layer
This gap-mender, of quiet courage unhastening. 32

No score is needed, no loss of nerve or memory lapse disrupts the even flow of this virtuoso performance. Here is a craftsman enviably secure in his movements because he is at home in his body


Roland Littlewood and I agreed after the debate that the concept of ‘resonance’ might in many contexts usefully replace that of ‘construction’, since it moves us away from the troublesome notion of cultural action as the implementation of a blueprint or programme, and encourages the thought that much of what we do when we attempt to make the world is to ‘tune in’ to processes already in motion.

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