studying culture

Curious case of studying culture

I study culture. I am enthusiastic to know how we all live differently or similarly in different frames of understanding our surroundings we are connected. Although the ‘culture’ was not what I told myself that I liked to know. I just gave it a name ‘culture’ because it sounded most suitable within my language limitation. Now that I officially study culture at university, I keep questioning to myself what is the reason to study people and their way of understanding the world. My own purpose was always clear; I work in development and I can only do my work by understanding how people understand their surroundings. But perhaps often inevitably, I face the conflict between my pleasure and the justification for the pleasure.

One of the problems I still have with studying anthropology is that I still don’t know why there needs to be the study of culture. By culture I mean the ways of living and the meanings of living, not the dance or art kind. I never mean the way that it is useless or so. I just want to find the justification for studying.

After classes filled with specific information about specific people, the conclusions I reach are that it happens differently in some cultures. What do I do with that information and how does it justify studying the people? While I’m writing this sentence, I’m imagining some imaginary studies on tribes living in a remote region, say, somewhere in Papua New Guinea. How does knowing the way they interpret certain things differently enrich the rest of the societies if the whole point of studying it was because not one culture can be the same in the world? It means the learned knowledge is not exactly relevant to my daily practice of cultures. If not for application, then what for? Is it part of the training to understand our own society or is it itself the purpose?

I know that there are different kinds of anthropological studies other than applied anthropology. But that’s what I’m wondering. If learning and broadening perspectives is important, why specifically from remote cultures not from our neighbours or just CNN discussants who always seem to be very different from each other?

To be honest, what makes me more confused is that they(those who give me knowledge) could talk for hours how Amazonians communicate with trees and plants but when it comes to fellow Belgian or Europeans, it’s just one line: they did bad things and they can be racists. Something like that. Not literally, though. Do I at least learn some perspectives academically just like the way I learn about Amazonians instead of being dismissed with pessimism if not guilt?

My quest for studying culture professionally has been for one reason, other than the fact that it gives me pleasure and life fulfilment. I had to apply the perspective for my work, to make it work. The way I understood so far is that I may get the examples from the Papua New Guinea and learn that there can be different ways of understanding in, for example, friendship, marriage, spirits, etc. It might provide me with the chance that I could think outside the box when I want to think differently in, let’s say, Malawi or Korea. Would that be the justification? Otherwise, then, for what reason am I legitimising this method of learning? Just to know isn’t enough.

Because why can’t things remain unknown? I had this discussion with my boyfriend after reading about the Sentinelese, the last “untouched” tribe on Earth. Why would these people have to go there and know how they were living? If not for governmentality — which obviously is —that aims to control all of its population, then why the scientists and the anthropologists are so interested in getting their hands on? Just for the sake of curiosity? How is “knowledge” a step forward for human being if one had to force the other to stop resisting? (It was quite funny in a way to see these people waving gifts such as dolls and pig to “signal” the seemingly hostile men on the island.)

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The first thing that was taught at one class was that the terms in development often use binary terms that could give wrong ideas about the “third world,” such as modern versus traditional, progress versus backward, scientific knowledge versus indigenous knowledge, the list goes on. Paradoxically, one of the visible differences that I felt while studying in Belgium was that many concepts come with a basic assumption that are divided into binaries: The North and the South, the West and the Third World, the whites and the blacks, men and women, racism and diversity, equality and inequality. Some of them are consciously footnoted or air-quoted as if the words are used sarcastically. Yet, the framework for the issues itself is always between 2s. I wouldn’t think this far if it was really just a few occasions. At this point I think the binarising tendency is rather chronic.

The reason I noticed it and came to hate it—unnecessarily strongly—was that often, no one was talking about the one in the middle. Where do I belong? The place I came from, is it the North or the South, the West or the Third World, the whites or the blacks? Is it because the middle ones are not significant or because they are politically not involved? Can’t they use more “neutral” words such as OECD DAC if they wanted to indicate aid giving countries instead of using the North? During the entire year of the programme, no one used the word OECD DAC except one time when the lecturer was literally talking about OECD DAC. Although, I get it. I’m not a fool. They just want to bring in the hegemonic system into the conversation, maybe, by saying specifically the North or the West. Though, the point here isn’t about having more categories other than two. The problem I find is that telling stories this way will affect how we understand the issue. Like the southern countries are all similar and all white people are the same. After all, people criticise the way Africa is presented as if it’s one country.


Photo by Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash

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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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