Anthropology as a discipline takes culture as its central aspect of study. I must say, what a complex and difficult concept “culture” is! Culture is many things, and encompasses beliefs, ideas, practices and a whole host of other social phenomenon. The philosophical implications of the word alone are immense, and I frequently get a headache when I try and grasp the idea. It is that awesome feeling of profound insignificance one gets when try to contemplate the great mysteries of the universe (or the multiverse if your prefer).
One of the central pieces of the culture puzzle is the question of “who am I?” It asks what an individual’s relation is to… well everything, including their own mind and those of other people and to culture. In some sense it is how we think of ourselves, and how others think of us. But this is not an exhaustive definition by any means, in fact it is hardly the tip of the iceberg!
To explain this idea further, let me detail my own philosophical beliefs. I believe the mind, my sense of self, is firmly rooted in at least two “worlds”, the worlds of ontology and epistemology. Now it should be said that I am not a philosopher in the academic sense, but as one of my most respected teachers once said “as a student of anthropology, you pick up a few things.” Probably not an exact quote, but moving on. Wikipedia defines ontology as “the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence or reality” and epistemology as “the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge.” I like to think of them another way, ontology being “the world as it is” (reality) and epistemology as “the world as we see it.”(perception of reality)
Are you still with me? I hope so, I understand how immense this may all seem. But put it this way, it seems to me the world has a reality, a existence that is outside of our minds, that can be measured and tested. This is the realm of natural sciences, of objectivity, geology, physics, chemistry, the whole works. There is another world, the world of the mind. Our individual minds take in all the information of the “real world” and order it to construct our sociocultural reality, our sense of place in the grand order of things. This is one way I think of both culture and identity, as the two are deeply intertwined. My culture and my identity are how I perceive my place in the world.
This is the realm of social science, where objectivity is at best a grand ideal. Even as observers, we are part of the social matrix, and by observing it, we change it. Thus, it happens that our subjective selves, our identities and biases become part of the object of study.
If that was not complicated enough, it gets even more complex when we consider that no person has one identity or culture, but multiples. As an example from my own life, I could be said to have the various identities of “writer”, “student”, “male”, “20-30 years of age”, “educated”, “anthropology major” and a wide variety of other identities. I think of it like a Venn diagram, where I am in the dead center of a series of overlapping circles. This is my “identity”, and all the things I use to identify myself, and perhaps just as importantly, distinguish myself from others, to define myself as a unique individual. Same goes for culture, and I would certainly admit I am at the center of many overlapping cultures, as is true of identity.
To connect this all together, my various cultures and identities all inform my perception of the world in some way or another. At the intersection of various identities and cultures exists my sense of self, my mind, my person. Somewhere, in this grand complex that is the cosmos, in the sweeping complexity of reality, is me. And it is through me, through the reality that passes through my senses and into my mind, is my perception of the world and my place within it. The various intersecting spheres of culture and identity are my giant cosmic arrow that says “You are here.” These are the things that give my world meaning, that makes me feel significant in a reality that by it immensity alone, can make one feel small and unimportant.