Applied Working Group Workshop: Culture as a Tool

Our second workshop explored how culture has been used as a tool to perpetuate oppression in many forms

Applied Working Group Workshop: Culture as a Tool

Rachel L. Kendal and Lorna Winship

Our second in-person (and hybrid) workshop organised by the “Culture as a Tool” Working Group took place at Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, USA) on 7-8th September 2023. The grant team attended online and were treated to an array of talks highlighting the history of the culture concept from romantic philosophers to modern times, and diverse implications for civilisation, ethnicity, policy, legislation and, of course, very many injustices.

A man in a black suit standing and addressing a group of seated Indigenous Americans.
Joseph the Prophet Addressing the Lamanites by Edward Williams Clay and Henry R. Robinson, 1844, Original public domain image from Smithsonian

Andrew Buskell (the working group’s lead) emphasized that the plasticity of the term culture enabled him and the wider team (Azita Chellappoo, Robin Nelson, Natália Dutra, Solène Boisard) to draw diverse speakers together to reckon with the past and future use of the concept of culture. Indeed, the speakers and participants represented Religious Studies, Philosophy, Archaeology, Psychology, History, Sociology, African American Studies, Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Bioethics, and Genetics. However, the reality is that the various disciplines use the term ‘culture’ differently, and even within each discipline, the term often has a contested history. To take one example raised in the workshop, the famous anthropologist Lévi-Strauss recommended that cultures should exchange ideas to progress in the 1950s, yet by the 1970s was recommending that cultures should ‘be deaf’ to other cultures in order to preserve themselves (see Gil-Riaño 2023). The former position echoes the colonialist drive to civilize ‘backward’ cultures and assimilate them, even while debunking scientific racism and emphasizing the importance of the cultural environment. In contrast, the latter position echoes attempts to define some groups as culturally ‘pure’ and others not, often based on genetic data alone and ignoring lived cultural identity.

Four people sitting in a small room with lots of furniture, and laundry hung from the ceiling above.
An African American family living in crowded quarters, Chicago, Illinois. (Russell Lee via the New York Public Library)

Both aforementioned positions result in culture being used as a tool to perpetrate genocide, oppression, and stigmatisation historically and in modern times. The workshop speakers emphasized these issues, and more, in relation to slavery and its legacy. A recurring theme was the use of the 1950s doctrine of ‘cultures of poverty’ being used as a tool to absolve governments of responsibility and perpetuate wealth disparities and racism. Here, as explained by Robin Nelson, “culture was used as a hammer to denigrate and shame black families in the USA” by claiming that even with structural changes poor groups have a culture, transmitted across generations, that sustains their poverty. Today anthropologists and sociologists argue that culture and structure cannot be distinguished so easily. For example, the legacy of slavery, in the form of financial injustices to emancipated slaves and continued segregation/exclusion can be seen today in cultural differences in ideal investment behaviour between blacks and whites in the USA, which contributes to the continued wealth gap (Rucks-Ahidiana 2017).

Speakers also emphasized the impact of misuse of culture upon Indigenous Peoples’ rights; and how the culture of EDI/DEI (equity, diversity and inclusion) in universities can be misused as a tool to other and marginalise those outside the majority culture. But it’s not all doom and gloom. We also heard of cases where Indigenous Peoples are successfully using their cultural status as a tool to legislate against the violation of their rights (see Tsosie et al. 2021).

Many people sitting in rows of chairs.  Most are wearing clothes associated with each of their cultures.
A view of participants in the General Assembly Hall during the opening ceremony of the Fifteenth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

The biggest take-away from the workshop was the various risks and harms of specific uses of culture and a need to challenge norms of a simplistic understanding of culture both within and across disciplines. Crucially, as cultural evolution is a field that encompasses many different disciplines, we – as a field – must be more proactive in reflecting upon how we use the term culture. The field was founded 50 years ago in mathematical evolutionary modelling which some criticize as an approach that may have negative effects on marginalized groups due to its focus on generalizability and tendency to minimize human agency (see Chellappoo 2021). However, the field’s ever-growing interdisciplinarity and embracing of mixed (qualitative and quantitative) methods, bodes well for alternative modes of understanding culture being represented in cultural evolutionary theory. Indeed, we are heartened that in the CES Transformation Fund grant scheme 95% of the projects funded are interdisciplinary, and 50% employ mixed methods.

One step that emerged in the reflections of most workshop participants was a practical one of “reaching back to look forward”. The intention is to map diverse discipline’s use of the term culture, and the resulting misuses and tensions, in order to formulate a better way to study culture in the future. For example, those of us studying non-human animals use claims of a species having culture to aid in the conservation of these often endangered species (Brakes et al. 2021). Yet, such ideas of preservation of a ‘vanishing culture’ when applied to humans elicits harmful ‘white saviour’ tendencies and does not grant such cultures agency to culturally evolve on their own terms. This tension of cultural assimilation/hybridization versus preservation also featured strongly in the grant team’s take-away from the Hunter-Gatherer Education workshop held earlier this year (see blog post). Unlike the Hunter-Gatherer Education workshop, there were unfortunately no policymakers present at this workshop. However, we hope that the process of mapping out the diverse understandings and (ab)uses of the concept of culture will be a step towards engaging and influencing policymakers to ensure culture is not used as a tool to perpetuate harm in the future.

Brakes, P, Carroll, EL, Dall, S, Keith, S, McGregor, P, Mesnick, S, Noad, M, Rendell, L, Robbins, M, Rutz, C, Thornton, A, Whiten, A, Whiting, M, Aplin, L, Bearhop, S, Ciucci, P, Fishlock, V, Ford, J, Notarbartolo di Sciara, G, Simmonds, M, Spina, F, Wade, P, Whitehead, H, Williams, J & Garland, EC (2021) A deepening understanding of animal culture suggests lessons for conservation, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 288, no. 1949, 20202718.

Chellappoo, A. (2021) Cultural evolution: A case study in global epistemologies of science, Global Epistemologies and Philosophies of Science (pp. 208-219). Routledge.

Gil-Riaño, S. (2023) The remnants of race science: UNESCO and economic development in the global south. Columbia University Press.

Krystal S. Tsosie, Katrina G. Claw & Nanibaa’ A. Garrison (2021) Considering “Respect for Sovereignty” Beyond the Belmont Report and the Common Rule: Ethical and Legal Implications for American Indian and Alaska Native Peoples, The American Journal of Bioethics, 21:10, 27-30,

Rucks-Ahidiana, Z. (2017) Cultural implications of historical exclusion for the racial wealth gap: How ideal financial behavior varies by race. Am J Cult Socio 5, 68–89.

More news