Module I: Introduction

I. The Culture Concept

B. A Definition of Culture

Emphasis 2. Systematic Patterning.

Cultural elements as symbols assume their meanings in relationship to other symbols within a broader context of a meaning system. To interpret a symbol, therefore, anthropologists must investigate the interrelatedness of elements and the presence of unifying principles that connect symbols to form larger patterns and cultural wholes.

Let us take as an example a prevalent Dani institution that Heider identifies as "warfare". We shall be returning to Dani warfare on several occasions and will try to come to an understanding of its causes and consequences. The first assignment that an anthropologist must undertake, however, is to understand what warfare means in relation to other aspects of Dani culture in the Dani's own terms. In doing so we must suspend our own concepts and theories of warfare as a way that nation states compete over scarce resources, or as a consequence of innate human aggression, or as a delayed reaction to the repression of childhood sexuality.

 Our first clues to Dani warfare may come from their language and a discovery that the Dani have two words for large-scale armed conflict: wim and um'aim. Heider distinguishes the two as different phases of warfare, but this understanding masks the fact that each form is linked into a separate matrix of meaning and behaviour. Wim is conducted between territorial and social units termed alliances. All the combatants share the same culture and language and hold comm on beliefs and understandings about how and why warfare is conducted. Hostilities between alliances take the form of formal battles or sporadic ambushes or raids. They are always suspended when one of the combatants, or sometimes a bystander, is killed. If a fatality occurs, the alliance of the dead person holds a funeral, and the victorious group holds a celebration. (The bereaved group accommodatingly confirms the death and conveys the name of the deceased to the victors). The limits to violence that are inherent in this system, in which only one person is killed during a battle, result in a low fatality rate and a balance between opponents in which no territory or other resource is ceded. They also maintain warfare as a constant state that commits men to guard duty, fighting, and ceremony.

Dani Warriors during an Edai (victory) ceremony

The key to understanding what might appear to you as something outside of your own cultural experience of war is that the Dani pattern combines elements that occur in Western culture into a very different complex and is related to other Dani institutions within a singular cultural matrix. The Dani provide a coherent understanding of their system by explaining warfare in relation to their belief in ghosts. When someone is killed, the ghosts of the aggrieved allia nce will demand that the living avenge the death and will harass them until an enemy is killed. Ceremonies are then held to appease the ghosts of the two groups involved. The cycle is perpetuated indefinitely, because each new death calls for an additional act of vengeance. The religious rationale and the formalization and ceremonialization of hostility lead Heider to designate this form as the "ritual phase" of warfare.

We shall return to a consideration of ritual warfare and the alternate "phase" of secular warfare, or um'aim later in this course. For the present we can conclude that cultural traits and patterns must be initially understood in terms of the logic of the culture and the integration of cultural elements according to internally consistent themes and principles. This perspective is termed holism, a position that maintains that individual culture trai ts cannot be understood in isolation. 

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