Adieu, Culture: A New Duty Arises

  • Michel-Rolph Trouillot


The conceptual kernel behind “culture” as deployed in North American anthropology provides a useful and fundamental lesson about humankind. Yet the word culture today is irretrievably tainted both by the politics of identity and the politics of blame—including the racialization of behavior it was meant to avoid. Contrary to many of the critics usefully reviewed by Robert Brightman (1995), I do not see the concept as inherently flawed on theoretical grounds. Thus I agree with Richard Shweder (2001) that something akin to a culture-concept remains necessary not only to anthropology as a discipline, but also to social science in general. Nevertheless, the distinction between concept and word is central to my argument. So is the related emphasis on the sites and processes of deployment and the modes of engagement that mediate between concepts and words. If concepts are not just words, the vitality of a conceptual program cannot hinge upon the sole use of a noun. We can abandon the word and be better off politically and theoretically. Without that shorthand, we will have to describe spécifie traits ethnographically and evaluate analytically the distinct domains we previously compressed into it. We could then better pursue a practice rooted in the concept.1


Political Move Global Transformation American Anthropological Association Universal Suffrage Anthropological Theory 
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© Michel-Rolph Trouillot 2003

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  • Michel-Rolph Trouillot

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