Hegemonic Concepts of Culture: The Checkered History of Dark Anthropology

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18 Scopus citations


This article traces a genealogy of the culture concept, starting with the way it is presented in Sherry Ortner's account of “dark anthropology” (2016) and working back to the interpretations offered by Clifford Geertz, Raymond Williams, and Antonio Gramsci. Of particular interest is the shifting historical relationship between “culture” and its dark counterpart, “hegemony,” which Ortner describes as “the dominant version of the culture concept in use today.” While Ortner's analysis is compelling in many ways, it is flawed, in my view, by a “Boasian gap”—part of a widespread tendency in contemporary anthropology to underestimate the theoretical legacy of Franz Boas and the tradition that bears his name. This tendency is rooted, I argue, in a series of “asymmetrical ancestries.” Thus, Geertz minimized the importance of the Boasian tradition in his own intellectual genealogy, and Williams recognized but downplayed the role of German Romanticism in the early development of the culture concept. The case of Gramsci is especially interesting as it involves a cryptic ancestral connection between his approach to culture and that of his Boasian contemporaries. When all these gaps are filled, dark anthropology turns out to be historically checkered—regularly articulated with a “lighter” theoretical tradition. By recovering that tradition and appreciating its rich genealogy—sensing its manifold connections to German historicism, Humboldtian linguistics, and American pragmatism—we stand a chance of integrating “dark” and “light” anthropologies rather than pitting them needlessly against each other. [culture, genealogy, hegemony, Gramsci, Boas].

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)398-411
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Anthropologist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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