POINTS OF VIEW | ON CULTURE
Culture is a meaning-making practice
Heather Paxson, William Kenan Jr. Professor of Anthropology
Heather Paxson, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Anthropology, and Program Head; photo by Allegra Boverman
"As a meaning-making practice, 'culture' is viewed by anthropologists as a way of making sense of, adapting to — and, sometimes, resisting — economic, political, and other structural conditions."
Series: Points of View | On Culture
In this ongoing series sponsored by the Office of Tracie Jones, MIT SHASS Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, faculty and staff in MIT's humanistic fields share ideas, stories, and research-based commentary on the nature of culture and their experiences as part of the MIT community. We are honored that this inaugural commentary for the series is from Heather Paxson, the William Kenan Professor of Anthropology, head of MIT Anthropology, and a MacVicar Faculty Fellow. In this commentary, Professor Paxson provides some foundational thinking about how her field of anthropology — the scientific study of humanity including societies, behavior, cultural meaning, norms, and values — understands the concept of culture.
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Anthropology is the study of human cultural diversity. Anthropologists originated the modern understanding of “culture,” as describing a shared field of beliefs, values, and habituated ways of behaving that give meaning to daily life. What does anthropology have to say about “MIT culture”?
I often hear colleagues and students refer to “MIT culture” as if it were monolithic, a static obstacle to progressive change, or from the opposite perspective, as a precious inheritance continually under threat from top-down "reform." In fact, as a meaning-making practice, culture is viewed by anthropologists as a way of making sense of, adapting to — and, sometimes, resisting — economic, political, and other structural conditions.
In an influential 1991 essay, “Writing against Culture,” anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod cautioned against common uses of the culture concept that “freeze difference,” either by typifying groups (overemphasizing difference between “cultures”) or by homogenizing groups (overemphasizing coherence within them). “Cultures,” she reminds us, have long been in motion, accommodating global circulations of ideas, goods, media, and people. Culture is inherently dynamic.
A scene from the "Everybody," inaugural play in W-97, MIT Theater Building; photo by Jon Sachs
"In an influential 1991 essay titled 'Writing against Culture,' anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod cautioned against uses of the culture concept that 'freeze difference,' either by typifying groups (overemphasizing difference between 'cultures') or by homogenizing groups (overemphasizing coherence within them)."
Frozen perceptions — of a dynamic reality
Inspired by Abu-Lughod’s writing, Course 21A major, Caroline (Rubin) Charrow, ’08, wrote a brilliant essay, which she entitled “Writing against MIT Culture.” I still assign it in the class I co-teach on “The Meaning of Life.” Caroline observed that outsiders’ perceptions of “MIT culture” — typified by the student “nerd” (popularly imagined as white, male, socially awkward) — were “frozen” long before “demographic shifts in the MIT population took place.”
Although based on obsolete pictures of reality, such “outsider” frames of reference continue to influence how members of MIT’s community talk and act; as Caroline noted in 2008, “women and minority students are frequently put in the position of being seen as outsiders in their own home — they are MIT students, but may not be regarded as representative of 'MIT culture.'"
The same could be said of other constituencies. Caroline mentioned humanities scholars and students and faculty who are religious. Meanwhile, she continued, efforts by the Admissions Office to “unfreeze” the “lone nerd” stereotype by highlighting the collective playfulness of such cherished “MIT traditions” as hacking or the piano drop tend to “overemphasize coherence” and erase MIT’s heterogeneity.
“New freshmen [sic],” she added, “are often disappointed to realize how much time MIT students spend on mundane, ‘culture-free’ activities like doing homework and studying, as those tasks are not listed on the ‘Student Life and Culture’ page” of the Admissions Office website — even though “p-setting” may be one of the most broadly shared and distinctive features of MIT student life. Such narrow understandings of “MIT culture” reflect and reinforce broader value investments at MIT, which, Caroline writes, “take for granted that science and engineering are context-free and completely objective, and therefore good.”
Chalkboard in the MIT Concourse Program; by Jon Sachs, MIT SHASS Communications
"MIT encompasses an international milieu that includes people from all over the world, representing multiple generations, faiths, disciplines, experiences of racialization and dispossession, and cultural backgrounds."
Culture is multifaceted and continuously changing
I often thought back to Caroline’s essay during Fall 2019, when anguished outcry erupted across campus over the revelation that a handful of our faculty colleagues had accepted recurring financial donations from, and even invited to campus, a convicted, level-three sex offender. In a letter that I helped organize with a number of tenured women colleagues, we wrote: “The fact that this situation was even thinkable at MIT is profoundly disturbing, and is symptomatic of broader, more structural problems, involving gender and race, in MIT’s culture. It is time for fundamental change.”
In underscoring structural problems within “MIT’s culture” (rather than blaming “MIT culture” per se), the letter acknowledged that culture is neither homogeneous nor neutral. The personal cultivation of habits, dispositions, and social relationships that we recognize as being “cultural” often also shore up social hierarchies and power dynamics. (At MIT, for example, our invaluable staff too often have reason to feel that their experiences and are overlooked by others.) But culture’s entanglement with power is no reason to throw up one’s hands in passive resignation.
The "culture” at MIT, like any culture, is both multifaceted and continuously changing. Some changes have been hard fought through sustained advocacy and concerted effort. The Institute community's responses to the donations from a felon led, for example, to a values-driven tightening of the review process for donations and outside collaborations, and it arguably helped spur the establishment of an ad hoc committee to strengthen graduate mentoring and advising.
Anthropology class Technology of Enchantment; examining a demo; photo by Graham Jones
What is the best way to cultivate greater community on our campus?
"Rather than debate what threatens or counts as features of a fixed 'MIT culture' — which would inevitably uphold some individuals and experiences as 'typical' in ways that obscure or sideline others — we might instead ask what it means to live and work at MIT."
We are not a bubble
Over the years, other changes have crept in, almost imperceptibly, as an effect of broader, historically conditioned cultural shifts. It turns out that MIT is not a bubble. It is subject to government laws and regulations, as we’ve experienced with masking requirements and other Covid-19 public health precautions. It is embedded in the nation’s fraught politics, having to do, for example, with immigration law or legal changes to Title IX procedures. And it encompasses an international milieu that includes people from all over the world, representing multiple generations, faiths, disciplines, experiences of racialization and dispossession, and, yes, cultural backgrounds.
How, then, can we work most effectively to improve the conditions of collegiality and community on our campus? Habituated, “cultural” behavior is learned through processes of emulation and elicitation. By modeling through our own actions the values we hold we invite others to do the same. At the same time, ongoing review and revision of our policies and procedures is necessary to ensure that the behaviors our structures elicit and condone remain aligned with our collective values, which are themselves fragmentary and dynamic and require periodic assessment and reaffirmation.
The meaning of life at MIT
Rather than debate what threatens or counts, or should count, or shouldn’t count, as features of a fixed or frozen “MIT culture” — which would inevitably uphold some individuals and experiences as “typical” in ways that obscure or sideline others — we might instead ask what it means to live and work at MIT. To me, this invites curiosity about the range of activities, dispositions, and relationships that give diverse members of our community a sense of purpose, while bringing critical attention to behaviors, policies, and symbols that can be harmful, limiting, or exclusionary.
By encouraging universal, though not uniform, participation in the organization and life of the Institute, and in fostering for everyone, on their own terms, an experience of belonging, we can "write against" the limitations of "MIT culture," and endeavor to live creative and meaningful lives at MIT.
Series: Points of View | On Culture
MIT SHASS DEI | Gallery
Heather Paxson, Wm R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Anthropology
Book: The Life of Cheese, by Heather Paxson
Award: Heather Paxson named MacVicar faculty fellow
Commentary: Computing and AI, by Heather Paxson
Commentary: Ethics and AI, by Helmreich and Paxson
Story: MIT anthropologists plan a model for open access
Class story: In search of a meaningful life
Series prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Executive Director: Tracie Jones, MIT SHASS Assistant Dean for DEI
Co-Editors: Leda Zimmerman and Emily Hiestand