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The Good Society 15.1 (2006) 15-20

An Equilibrium Alternative to the Study of Culture1
David D. Laitin
Barry Weingast

1. Introduction

Culture, as Anne Norton describes it in her recent book 95 Theses on Politics, Culture, and Method, is a matrix (#1) of the sort popularized in the recent film, The Matrix.2 For all humans, who are products of culture, there is nothing outside of it (#2). Through language, one of its several media (#5), culture systematically biases its members into points of view that are never neutral (#7). Politics is not merely reflected by culture, but is in culture (#3). Culture also constitutes bodies (#12) as it constructs gender, sexuality, and race (#13). Being in one culture precludes being in others (#37). Culture also deceives its members by making the arbitrary appear natural (#15). Nearly all aspects of life, including mathematics (#2), are cultural. Culture is so ubiquitous it even induces its own resistance (#37) and includes its own internal critique (#38). Culture is so amorphous, however, its elements cannot be isolated or measured (#15). Culture is a text (#10), but it is hard to "read" as we cannot stand outside it.

To be sure, as Norton promulgates, our cultural matrix is not monolithic (#23) but syncretic — that is to say, amalgams of past cultures (#21). This means that through certain modes of action, for example, performance, acted out especially by those on its own periphery (#20), culture can be remade (#17). In part because of these performances, cultures are continually changing (#18). Moreover, individuals have multiple identities (#24) and these identities can be expressed in a myriad of manners (#26). As in The Matrix, those without power can use culture's symbols and the resources of their multiple identities to undermine the cultural foundations of their society (#18). In sum, culture is both ubiquitous and fragile. But unlike the liminal folk on the periphery (#20), we social scientists are prisoners in this matrix. The best we can do in the study of culture is that of decoding rather than analyzing it.3

2. Culture as an Equilibrium

In this symposium, we propose to develop an alternative metaphor — that of culture not as a matrix, but as an equilibrium. In so doing, we shall highlight not the ubiquity but rather the restricted domain of culture.

Consider this Somali example before we offer our definition of culture. In 1969, then General Maxamad Siyaad Barre led a coup d'état to capture state power in Somalia. Riding a wave of popular support from virtually all Somali clans, in 1977 he took advantage of revolutionary anarchy in Ethiopia and arms supplied to him by his Soviet patrons in order to incorporate through military conquest the Ogaadeen, a largely Somali-populated region of Ethiopia. The Soviets were nonplussed by this unexpected move, and besides, preferred to ally with the self-proclaimed Marxist regime in Addis Ababa, in a country far richer and more influential than Somalia could ever be. Soviet advisors crossed the Ogaadeen in support of their new clients, and helped decimate the near-victorious Somali army. In retreat, the Somali army and society broke apart in self-recrimination and clan rivalry.

President Siyaad Barre faced imminent rebellion by leaders from disfavored clans, whom he brutally suppressed. But to further protect himself, as the war against him became threatening in 1987, he appointed a heralded general from that war, Maxamad Caali Samantar, as both his Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. Samantar stood between the President and his opposition. He came from an outcaste Somali group whose members, amongst other restrictions, no "clan" Somali would allow his daughter to marry. This was a brilliant move by Siyaad Barre. The idea that a man such as Samantar could serve as president was an anathema both to those clans supporting and those seeking to overthrow the president. It was common knowledge that Samantar, if he led a coup, would get no public support. Therefore all officers knew that coup-talk...


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