No grilling for an old chestnut

Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology
December 5, 2003

Nigel Barley tries to find his way out of a cultural maze that has been laid and cultivated by lawyers

Most academics' computers are clogged with academic dandruff - addresses from conferences, popular pieces written for filthy lucre, reviews such as this. The question is whether to simply zap them after use or risk lending them a weight they may not bear by gathering them together into what inevitably seems a rather self-important volume of "essays". Often such works serve to show only how the once-hot issues have swiftly cooled.

Richard Shweder slyly has it both ways: by deft editorialising of past works he is able to ensure that he is gifted with a visionary power of foresight.

The essays in this book seem both comfortingly old fashioned and very American. Indeed, the whole subject of "cultural psychology" has always seemed largely a product of the American imagination, fuelled by a local belief in psychiatry, rather than the British way, where the gap between individual psyche and collective phenomenon has remained an uncomfortable stumbling block. Shweder sees its domain as both ideational and embodied, that is to say, not just beliefs about the good, the true and the beautiful, but necessarily including the social actions that lend meaning to the latter, which in turn confirm the former. But the fundamental conception on which Shweder's concept of culture rests is deeply conservative, being largely unchanged from that of Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn in the 1950s. There are many places where Shweder trumpets his commitment to "postmodern humanism", but this is simply a relabelling of that comfy, old-fashioned anthropological virtue - cultural relativism. In short, this is a book that tries to set aside, as mere excess, all attempts since the 1950s to rethink the culture concept, so that a solid, back-to-basics view of anthropology can re-emerge triumphant.

And this rather tame beast is hailed as nothing less than "a revival of cultural anthropology as a discipline".

Shweder would argue that the difference between his own vision and that of the past is that, within his own conception, cultural critique now becomes possible, whereas before, all alien cultural practices lay beyond discussion. This he encapsulates pithily but repeatedly as "the world is incomplete if seen from any one point of view and incoherent if seen from all points of view at once".

In the essays, this "manywheres" shibboleth is illustrated through examples plucked from his research, such as sleeping arrangements and explanations of misfortune in Orissa. These lead to an impeccable exploration of local beliefs, norms, roles, ideas and values, in the traditional anthropological fashion (with a little scientistic use of graphs, tables and diagrams), but the only one at the cutting edge is that on female circumcision - or genital mutilation, as it is knowingly labelled by its opponents. What this essay comes down to, however, is a discussion of the evidence for the dire medical consequences, an eloquent claim for consideration of the views of the women themselves and a denunciation of American lack of consistency on the issue - the whole topped off with a condemnation of western feminist bias as an outdated universalising discourse. So where should we look for a resolution in this cultural maze? To the wise words of the liberal judges of the US Supreme Court, no less. Many of these essays had their roots in well-funded international conferences. Dominated by lawyers, they always resolve that the world can be saved only by hiring more lawyers.

This book is humane, liberal, moderate and balanced, therefore more a snapshot of its author than an accurate reflection of the current state of anthropology. It is perhaps fitting then that one of the final essays is the gung-ho speech of welcome made to freshmen at the University of Chicago in 1993. "I welcome you to this temple of liberalism. Honor it. Flourish in it. Defend it. May it live for a thousand and one years." Actually, it is a rather good speech - but the author never explains why men barbecue.

Nigel Barley is an anthropologist and writer.

Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology

Author - Richard A. Shweder
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 405
Price - £36.50 and £14.95
ISBN - 0 647 01057 4 and 01135 X

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