Towards an Understanding of Culture

Bernard Barber

Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Barber anatomizes contemporary intellectual activities and discusses intellectuals as ideologists. There is a chapter on academic conflicts concerning the "two cultures" issue and the current disputes about postmodernism.

The author has been a sociologist for about 60 years, and defines culture by means of his own social system theory:

"The essential presupposition of social system theory is that its basic stuff is, to use what has become a technical term, 'action'; that is, the exchange of meanings and ideas in social interaction through mutually understood symbols." (p.26)

He outlines a tripartite theoretical model for the social system, consisting of social, cultural and personality structures, whose structural types are listed in a rather baffling figure on p.31, which may perhaps have been lifted from one of his other books, leaving behind the explanation of his Types A, B and C.

The cultural structures range from law and drama to mathematics; the social structures include kinship and prestige stratification; the personality structures include perception and memory. While this effort to be systematic and comprehensive must be of interest to those of us who support Fuller's generalist approach to the world, as explained in, say, Total Thinking, Barber's model is ultimately unsatisfactory, confusing as it does social structures - like communication - with matter, the "basic stuff of the physical world" (p.27). An alternative will be elaborated on this site in due course.

Musician readers will be pleased to find, in the chapter, "The Structure of Culture: The 'High' and 'Low' Problem", a section entitled, "From Low to High: The Case of Jazz", which plots the changing status of that cultural pursuit. Along the way, he mentions 1920s band-leader Paul Whiteman, the self-styled "King of Jazz":

"He was immensely popular with his middle-level audiences at the time, but the hybrid he created is now discredited and jazz high-brows do not listen to his records." (p.97)

Quite right, but now we have, although Barber doesn't put it this way, a new swarm of Paul Whitemans:

"just as in the case of other kinds of the higher art forms, a middlebrow style of jazz, known as smooth jazz, now flourishes. It is described as 'radio's hottest format' today, played much more widely than higher jazz, and selling far more records." (p.99)

No need to rub it in, is there?

Barber devotes several pages to a consideration of Gross and Levitt's Higher Superstition, to which he is not too sympathetic. Some of the criticisms here seem unfair, as in this reference to their complaints about some feminist theorists:

"The original goal of feminist science, to eliminate discrimination, has now been transformed into the 'more ambitious project to refashion the epistemology of science from the roots up'. Gross and Levitt see this, of course, as another attack on the essential Western value of rationality. They do not see that it may be an extreme result of the feminist demand for the realization of that other essential Western value, equality." (p.130)

Do they not? They describe the previous phase of feminism thus:

"The main demand was for a fair chance at careers, in and out of academic life - a just claim, unproblematic in its philosophic standing if not immune to vexations." (op.cit., p.108)

Gross and Levitt specifically discuss discrimination and equality in science and in universities, and declare that "sexist discrimination, while certainly not vanished into history, is largely vestigial in the universities" (p.110). The problems they do concern themselves with are related to rationality and the philosophy of science because these are distinct issues, and because equality is stated to be no longer a key concern in this context. Hence, Barber's criticism seems misplaced.



Paul Taylor 2001