Chris Jenks

Routledge, London, 1993.

We all know what culture is, don't we? Culture is the stuff churned out by composers, writers, painters and other creative types. Or is it a word for the way of life of a group of people, as when we say "Japanese culture", which includes language and customs? Which is it? What is the relation between culture and society?

Jenks provides a potted guide to a complex network of concepts and theories, from a sociological point of view, and includes a chapter on that excitable academic enterprise, Cultural Studies. The history of the notion of culture is traced in the writings of philosophers such as Aristotle and Nietzsche, and literary scribes like Coleridge and Arnold. Then come chapters on the relation between culture and social structure, culture and social action, culture and materialism, cultural stratification, cultural reproduction, culture and postmodernism, and cultural deprivation.

Altogether this is a handy introduction to all kinds of issues in anthropology and sociology, but there are a couple of points where a cartoon question mark may appear above the reader's head. One of the key figures in this field is Raymond Williams, author of "The Country and the City", "Modern Tragedy", "Culture" and "Keywords". Discussing the latter book, Jenks makes a rather peculiar remark:

"there is an essentialism in his work (as indeed there would have to be for an author to write a mini encyclopedia reducing culture to a finite set of 'Keywords')".

Anyone who knows Williams' work will know that he is one of the most painstakingly meticulous and cautious writers in the field, and the idea that he tried to reduce culture to a set of words is bizarre. This can be readily seen from his introduction:

"Every word which I have included has at some time, in the course of some argument, virtually forced itself on my attention because the problems of its meanings seemed to me inextricably bound up with the problems it was being used to discuss... Certain uses bound together certain ways of seeing culture and society, not least in these two most general words. Certain other uses seemed to me to open up issues and problems, in the same general area, of which we all needed to be much more conscious."

Another odd moment occurs in the chapter on cultural reproduction, in which Jenks proposes a,

"phenotypical reading of the term... At its strongest we have a copy or repeat, at its most dilute an imitation or a likeness; within this limited sense of the term we are presented with reproduction as replication... Alternatively, a genotypical reading of reproduction is... positive and vibrant. It brings to mind the excitement and newness of sexual and biological reproduction. Here the image is generative rather than replicative and it offers the possibilities of change and new combinations".

Blowing the dust off my old Penguin Dictionary of Biology, I find this definition:

"Phenotype. The sum of the characteristics manifested by an organism, as contrasted with the set of genes possessed by it (genotype). It is possible for organisms to have the same genotype but different phenotypes (owing to environmentally-produced variation); or the same phenotype with different genotypes."

Or, as Daniel Dennett (1995) succinctly puts it:

"The phenotype is the eventual body design created by the genotype in interaction with environment".

Once again a sociologist, who is pleased to remind us of the view that "science is true because it is powerful, not powerful because it is true", then helps himself to some scientific terms without grasping their meaning. See Sokal (1998) for more cases.



Paul Taylor 2001