(How) Can one conduct research “against culture”? Choose one method and describe how you would respond to Abu-Lughod’s criticism.

Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series)Abu-Lughod (Chapter 8, p. 137-162) argues for “writing against culture” because dilemmas presented by two groups, feminists and halfies (people whose national or cultural identity is mixed by virtue of migration, overseas education, or parentage), “reveal starkly the problems with cultural anthropology’s assumption of a fundamental distinction between self and other.” (p. 137) “If “culture,” shadowed by coherence, timelessness, and discreteness, is the prime anthropological tool for making “other”, and difference, as feminists and halfies reveal, tends to be a relationship of power, then perhaps anthropologists should consider strategies for writing against culture.” (p. 147)

Abu-Lughod proposes three strategies:

1. Discourse and practice
These two terms are increasingly used instead of the term “culture”. “[T]hey were intended to enable us to analyze social life without presuming the degree of coherence that the culture concept has come to carry.” (p. 147) They are both “useful because they work against the assumption of boundedness, not to mention idealism (Asad 1983), of the culture concept.” If I understand well, it means focusing on (the analysis of) discourse and practice of various groups of people instead of categorizing them by their “cultures”.

2. Connections
Another proposed strategy is “to reorient the problems or subject matter anthropologists address.” (p. 148) Instead of pretending to be an impartial observer who is able to be absolutely objective, it is necessary to admit connections between the observer and the observed, to explore connections between the country of origin of the researcher and the particular researched country, between the past and the present. Abu-Lughod suggests moving from the inadequate concept of culture/s: “Although there may be a tendency in the new work merely to widen the object, shifting from culture to nation as locus, ideally there would be attention to the shifting groupings, identities, and interactions within and across such borders as well.” (p. 149)

3. Ethnographies of the particular 
Abu-Lughod argues that “the degree to which people in the communities they [=ethnographers] study appear “other” must also be partly a function of how anthropologists write about them.” (p. 149) She presents “two reasons for anthropologists to be wary of generalization. The first is that, as part of a professional discourse of “objectivity” and expertise, it is inevitably a language of power.” (p. 150) “The second problem with generalization derives […] from the effects of homogeneity, coherence, and timelessness it tends to produce.”

My response
I think her criticism is justified. On the other hand, she herself admits that these strategies cannot substitute for the usual method, but should complement them. I understand what the problem is: be it with the concept of culture, or with languages. In order to summarize and be able to share / compare / teach the knowledge we have, it is necessary to identify certain features or rules that are common (now, I refer to ethnographies of the particular) or general in a certain group of people or in a certain language. However, no standard, no generalization is actually real. When we learn about “cultures” or study a language (commonly simultaneously), we learn about the standard. What a surprise it is when we actually come to the country of our interest and realize that nobody really speaks the way we do and that we know more about their “culture” that the natives do!

Therefore, I believe Abu-Lughod has a valid point there. The problem is that more attention is paid to what divides us than to what unites us. We are too concerned with contrasting and comparing. The question is: what should be the locus of such new identities, if not “culture”, or “nation”?