The 1930s is the moment when the definition of culture undergoes a dramatic transformation into the form we recognize today. The model of culture as the best of man's intellectual and artistic achievements lost its preeminence and became more accurately a description of "high culture."

In 1931, Malinowski's radical definition of culture appeared in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences. In 1934, Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture was published and became one of the most widely read works of professional anthropology (Susman Culture as History153). What was happening, Russell Nye suggests in "The Thirties: The Framework of Belief," is that scholars like Malinowski and Benedict ceased believing in a "single universal constant called 'human nature'" (38) that was comparable across cultures. They shifted instead towards a less absolute, more systems-thinking model that considered the "totality of institutions, adjustments, beliefs, and values that held man's world together; by that definition all the jumbled and chaotic details of living were conceived of as interacting, related parts of a single whole" (40).

Within the field of anthropology, this had remarkable epistemological and methodological implications. Franz Boas and his school rose to prominence; as Michael Kammen suggests, his work brought about a shift from an evocative anthropology of tribal memory to an analytical ethnology of folk cultures (Mystic Chords of Memory415).

The shockwaves of the "discovery" of culture affected disciplines outside of anthropology, as well...



Juliet Gorman, May 2001