The Detriments of Culture Preservation

It is a dilemma whenever I am asked if I am for or against cultural preservation. It sounds like a good effort done by an anthropologist, cultural preservationist or someone who believes in preventing the extensive commodification of heritage and the loss of authenticity. In doing so, one could trace the legacies and cross-cultural exchanges which occurred centuries ago, further affirming the status quo of this specific cultural community. However, I will choose to not concur that cultural preservation is entirely good for it reproduces and perpetuates the idea that there is an essence within a certain entity which do not have the ability to change, implicitly subordinating the cultural identities of these people.

Roy Wagner in “The Invention of Cultures; Chapter 1: The Assumption of Culture”[1] argues for the three fundamental rules of anthropology in our post-colonial era of which two I am going to explain. Firstly, it has to do with the notion of “Culture Relativity” and the importance of viewing one’s culture as not superior over another.[2] Culture relativity has also been reiterated during our lectures with Dr. Thompson during Lecture 3: Culture, cultures and the Human Condition. He mentions how Boas talked about the “strengthening of the viewpoint of the relativity of all cultivation”, implying that one should stay relative in dictating his/her/they (gender-neutral pronoun) perception of another culture.

Wagner also argues for “relative objectivity”, and not “objectivity” itself for it will be too idealistic to require one to abandon his culture.[3] To be relatively objective is to see the restrictiveness in using the preconceptions of his own culture to comprehend another culture.

Let’s discuss the importance of Wagner when attempting cross-cultural studies regarding cultural preservation and to achieve the least contentious, least Orientalist-strained depiction of cultures for which we will encounter.

Lee Cronk argues in “That Complex Whole: Righting Culture” that human behaviour should not be seen as entirely consumed by culture itself and is not the immediate cause of behaviours. He then uses a simplified example of how the recipe, or “socially transmitted information” acts as the determining factor of culture or in other words, how culture and behaviour can be perceived as two separate entities.[4] However, he then shows how the arbitrary relationship between culture and behaviour can problematize certain cultural observations “students of culture” can make. In fact, Cronk suggests how “mental representations” are part of “’material culture’” but quickly refutes that culture cannot be as inclusive as to be regarded as behaviour and also used to study behaviour. [5] Therefore, it becomes imperative to adopt Wagner’s rules to perfect or at least, diminish cultural prejudices and racially discriminative analysis.

With the “politicsiation” of cultural diversity[6], and Cronk’s provocative questioning of how cultures are not as diverse anymore, I will like to point out how this implicitly suggests that homogenization, or the lack of diversity is detrimental. Politicians have deployed the word 'culture' in various contexts. Some may utilize the word 'culture' to preach nationalism such that they can retract themselves from the detriments of biological racism, yet implicitly implement racialised practices using a cultural guise. Many anthropologists, include Wagner himself, agree that the importance of culture is that it is not misused wrongly, especially in a subordinate manner. Some decision makers may argue how their culture is usurped by Westernisation, homogenized by uncontrollable commercialization and industrialization.

To exemplify such situations, the Akha Highlanders in “When the Mountains No Longer Mean Home” written by Chris Lyttleton[7] and their adaptation to commodification, state assimilation and exposure to capitalism epitomize the above debate. The assimilation of some highlanders meant that they gained citizenship through the state’s employment of the appeal of modernity to leave their “‘threatened’ forests”.[8] However, this is not to imply that the Akha people succumbed to the desires of modernity or has failed to retain their "authentic" identities. This is when the anthropologist must step in to understand how culture preservation can be problematic. Lyttleton points out what Tooker has formulated – “Compartmentalisation” of Akha "ethnic identity" such that one is able to use the various facets of their identity to their advantage proves that the Akha people are not powerless, but able to exercise their agency within the state assimilating structure that forces to constrain them (Lyttleton, 276).[9] The circumstances for which they have to mitigate suggest that cultural preservation can be detrimental to their adaptation and assimilation to larger changes by Othering them, perpetuating the false notion of the unchanging natives. Romanticise them, that is.
We have to turn to Wagner to avoid implicitly attacking the supposed passiveness of people whose culture and ethnic identities are transforming tremendously. We also need to understand that no culture is superior to the other such that any “contamination” in terms of external influences, enforced or naturally occurring, is capable of usurping the entire cultural identities who we deemed still needs to practise swiddening. Cultural preservation takes up the unwitting guise of a decision maker by using culture to preserve his privileged position as an individual who unwittingly subordinates his/her/they subjects by having the power to prevent it from changing. Cultures are ever changing, and we should learn to discern what needs to be preserved and what does not.
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[1] Roy Wagner,The Invention of Culture(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), accessed September 16, 2010,
[2] Wagner, p. 13
[3] Ibid., p.12
[4] Lee Cronk, “Righting Culture”,in That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behaviour, (Westview Press, 1999), 12.
[5] Cronk, p. 13-4
[6] Ibid., p. 15
[7] Chris Lyttleton, “When the Mountains No Longer Mean Home,” inEveryday Life in Southeast Asia, ed. Kathleen M. Adams and Katheleen A. Gillogly (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2011), 273-82.
[8] Lyttleton, p. 281
[9] Ibid., p. 276

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