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More on Sahlins

February 24, 2010

I take back what I said a few days ago about Marshall Sahlins’ Culture and Practical Reason being dated. The first chapter might have been about books I’ve never heard about (let alone read), but the second chapter was about Levi-Strauss, Malinowski, Durkheim, Mary Douglas, etc.

This chapter plots two trajectories for anthropological theory: one of which suggests that culture is epiphenomenal in relation to society, social structure, modes of production, etc., while the other suggests that culture is constitutive of society, social structure, modes of production, and so on.

The discussion is reminiscent of the way people report on Weber’s critique of Marx: Marx thought religion logically followed from modes of production, whereas Weber thought religion was (in part) constitutive of modes of production. (This of course mangles Marx a bit.)

As someone committed to Durkheim, Mary Douglas, Foucault, Bourdieu, and others, I am already on the side that says the symbols, concepts, and classifications we use (which are part of our culture) are in part constitutive of our practices and social order. (And I think Marx would say the same, at least in some of his texts). But that is not to say I didn’t learn anything from Sahlins’ chapter—it really is a brilliant review of the arguments and what’s at stake.

I’m excited to move on to the next chapter, which is apparently going to shift the discussion away from anthropological theory and toward a critique of those forms of Marxism that see culture as having nothing other than a secondary function.

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