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Fixing cultures

It is not only the convention of the ‘field’ in anthropological research that has been criticised for fixing cultures in particular places and times. The language used in traditional anthropology has also been argued to contribute to this. Malkki is the key contemporary anthropologist to discuss language as a ‘technique of fixity’. He argues that the concept of “rootedness” (Malkki 1997:57) is at the foundations of traditional anthropology. The idea of roots is that of “linkages between people and place” (Malkki 1997:52) and therefore heightens the idea of people and cultures existing in particular fixed places. Malkki argues that the idea of such “rootedness” (Malkki 1997:57) is conveyed through biological metaphors present in traditional anthropological writings.

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For example the concept of ‘the nation’ is often referred to as ‘the country’, ‘the land’ or ‘the soil.’ It is also humanised with statements such as ‘the people of the country’ and ‘national soil.’ Such metaphors imply a naturalised identity between people and places. As well as nations, cultures are also described as rooted in the soil through terms such as ‘native’ and ‘indigenous’. Other metaphors of kinship such as ‘motherland’ or ‘fatherland’ used to describe cultures are also considered territorialising as they “denote something to which one is naturally tied” (Anderson 1983:131.)

While Malkki criticises such language for fixing cultures in particular times and places he also highlights the fact that it can lead to the discrimination and lack of study of those people considered to be without roots, such as travellers and refugees. He calls for an awareness that “people are chronically mobile and routinely displaced” (Malkki 1997:52) and the need for a “sociology of displacement” (Malkki 1997:52.)

He does not deny the importance of place in the construction of identity but argues that anthropologists need to study the variety of attachments people have to different places through living in, remembering and imagining them. Malkki adopts such ideas in his study of the refugee experience in Burundi and Rwanda. He explores the taken for granted ways of thinking about identity and territory. The aim of his study was to draw attention to the consequences of territorialising concepts of identity for those people, such as refugees, who are classified as ‘displaced’ as they are not seen as being rooted to a particular place.

Regionalism is another ‘technique of fixity’ identified by contemporary anthropologists. This is the idea that traditional anthropology divided the world in cultural areas and generated consensus that there certain themes that are important to these areas. This affects the focus of studies carried out in these areas, for example anthropological studies of India tend to focus on heirachy as its main cultural characteristic. Fardon states that such cultural areas are upheld institutionally through specific area studies that exist in universities.

Appadurai confronts the implications of such regionalism. He claims that cultural areas do not actually exist they are just ‘imagined’ by anthropologists in order to fix cultures in a particular place so they can more easily be studied. Appadurai argues instead that the world is made up “deterritorialised ethnoscapes” (Appadurai 1991:192) which he defines as “the landscapes of persons who make up the shifting world in which we live” (Appadurai 1991:192.) By this he means that people have culturally constructed places of identification that are not necessarily the same as their physical location.

He further criticises traditional ideas of regionalism for fixing so called ‘natives’ to particular places along with cultures. This “confinement” (Appadurai 1988:38) is the consequence of reading one characteristic as representational of an entire culture. As a result anthropologists have incarcerated ‘natives’ both ecologically and intellectually in places, outside of the west, where their culture is regarded as closely linked to their particular environment. Appadurai argues that “natives, people confined to and by the place to which they belong, groups unsullied by contact with a larger world have probably never existed” (Appadurai 1983:39.)

As well as liberation for such people through a realisation of the fixing of cultures Appadurai also argues that the loss of place as the dominant metaphor for culture leads to a positive methodological redirection of anthropology. He describes this as being a change from order to non-order and therefore allowing the study of mobility, deterritorilisation, reterritorilisation and awareness that people’s actions affect their reality.

Such a redirection of anthropology has been criticised by some anthropologists. Hastrup and Olwig claim that whilst contemporary anthropology has now become concentrated around the criticism of fixivity and the idea that the concept of culture and bounded, localised cultural wholes must be deconstructed, people are still deeply involved in the cultural context in which they live. As a result they contend that despite valid criticisms made by contemporary anthropologists about the fixing of cultures they should not dismiss such places of cultural identification but instead should study “the cultural importance of place as a source of life and a reference point which people may identify with from their particular position in the more global network of human relations” (Hastrup and Olwig 1997:12)

Contemporary ethnographies have attempted to incorporate such ideas as well as others suggested by the previously discussed anthropologists into their work. Denings (1980) in his work “Islands and Beaches” conducted an ethnographic history of Marquesas. He focused particularly on interactions that took place on the island’s beaches as, despite being sites of travel and therefore not containing a ‘fixed’ culture, Denings found them to be of great importance to his research. Another example is Brosman’s film about the Moes.

The Moes were a veteran travelling performance group and Brosman focused his work on their travelling worldview and looked at how they maintained their sense of identity. Turner highlights the fact that it is not only literal travel that is of anthropological importance in today’s globalising world and should be researched. He investigated the experience of Japanese factory workers who had never travelled but had been exposed to global commercial and media images and as a result maintained a global/local sense.

Such studies are of great importance to anthropology and study people and groups that would previously have been ignored under traditional anthropology however researchers must be careful not to now focus all their research on travel and movement. Malkki points out that stable communities do still exist and they should not be ignored now this criticism of traditional anthropology has arisen. What should instead be taken from this criticism is a removal from the anthropological world view of a mosaic of distinct fixed cultures to be studied through fieldwork to a recognition of the “more complex field of social and economic interrelations, cultural reflexivity and culturally constructed places.” (Hastrup and Olwig 1997: 12)

The idea that traditional anthropology fixed cultures into particular places and times is a notable criticism of the discipline. As has been shown many contemporary anthropologists have identified so-called ‘techniques of fixity’ and shown how they limited the research carried out by traditional anthropologists. However traditional anthropology and its methods are still valued even by those who criticise them and whilst contemporary anthropologists have suggested changes to the topics studied through anthropological research and a change from the total reliance on fieldwork they still recognise that in reality anthropologists can only study one place at one time. Criticisms arise when, as Clifford states, such spatial and temporal constraints become confused with what constitutes ‘a culture’


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