Is Culture the Solution or the Problem?

Just the other week, I wrote a post (here) on the importance of recognizing the problems with using the concept of culture to understand Deaf social relations. I just came across a great article about immigrant sociology that makes the same point called “Herder’s Heritage” for short. I will quote from it at length because the argument is much better than the one I made. The final paragraph is the most important one, and it corresponds to points #1–4 on my earlier post What do sign language interpreters need to accomplish? In other words, I think the framework that interpreters use to understand “Deaf culture”, and indeed the framework that has been taught to many in the Deaf community, needs massive revision. Andreas Wimmer explains why:

“In the eyes of 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, the social world was populated by distinct peoples, analogous to the species of the natural world. Rather than dividing humanity into “races” depending on physical appearance and innate character (Herder 1968:179) or ranking peoples on the basis of their civiliza- tional achievements (Herder 1968:207, 227), as was common in French and British writings of the time, Herder insisted that each people represented one distinctive manifestation of a shared human capacity for cultivation (or Bildung) (e.g. 1968:226; but see Berg 1990 for Herder’s ambiguities regarding the equality of peoples).

Herder’s account of world history, conveyed in his sprawling and encyclopedic Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, tells of the emergence and dis- appearance of different peoples, their cultural flourishing and decline, their migra- tions and adaptations to local habitat, and their mutual displacement, conquest, and subjugation. Each of these peoples was defined by three characteristics. First, each forms a community held together by close ties among its members (cf. 1968:407), or, in the words of the founder of romantic political theory Adam Mu ̈ller, a “Volksge- meinschaft.” Secondly, each people has a consciousness of itself, an identity based on a sense of shared destiny and historical continuity (1968:325). And finally, each people is endowed with its own culture and language that define a unique worldview, the “Genius eines Volkes” in Herderian language (cf. 1968:234).  …

But I should first discuss Herder’s heritage, which has left its mark not only on his direct descendants in folklore studies and cultural anthropology (Berg 1990; Wimmer 1996), but also on sociology and history.

In the following review, I will limit the discussion—for better or for worse—to North American intellectual currents, which are a source of inspiration to many discussions in other national contexts, and to three sets of approaches: various strands of assimilation theory, multiculturalism, and ethnic studies. As we will see, these paradigms rely on Herderian ontology to different degrees and emphasize different elements of the Herderian trinity of ethnic community, culture, and identity. They all concur, however, in taking ethnic groups as self-evident units of analysis and observation, assuming that dividing an immigrant society along ethnic lines—rather than class, religion, and so forth—is the most adequate way of advancing empirical understanding of immigrant incorporation. …

In conclusion, we can gain considerable analytical leverage if we conceive of immigrant incorporation [or Deaf social relations] as the outcome of a struggle over the boundaries of inclusion in which all members of a society are involved, including institutional actors such as civil society organizations, various state agencies, and so on. By focusing on these struggles, the ethnic group formation paradigm helps to avoid the Herderian ontology, in which ethnic communities appear as the given building blocks of society, rather than as the outcome of specific social processes in need of comparative explanation.”

Wimmer, A. (2009). Herder’s Heritage and the Boundary‐Making Approach: Studying Ethnicity in Immigrant Societies. Sociological Theory, 27(3), 244–270.


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