Ontology is (just?) another word for culture

Below is the text of my contribution to the 2010 GDAT debate 'Ontology is just another word for culture. The whole debate has been published as Carrithers et al. 2010. 'Ontology Is Just Another Word for Culture', Critique of Anthropology, 30 (2), 152-200. For the motion

I have stopped counting the concerned friends who, when they learnt of my participation in the debate, came to warn me that my position was untenable, that I couldn’t possibly be arguing for the motion. The funny thing is, they didn’t all think the position was the same. One person assumed that to argue for the motion (“ontology is just another word for culture”) was to make a strong claim in favour of the plurality of “ontology”, namely to argue that ontologies are just as plural and constructed as cultures. This person wondered how one (and in this case I) could ever argue for such a position. Someone else took the statement to imply that ontology was as all-encompassing as culture, and was at pains to argue that people who made different ontological assumptions could often agree and get along in a way that hard notions of “cultural difference” did not suggest was possible. This person, too, was astonished that I would argue for the motion, but for completely different reasons.

This is why I thought I should probably start by clarifying exactly what I take the motion to mean. Guided by the fact that this is a debate in anthropological theory, I will take the proposition to mean: “Ontology, as it is currently being used by anthropologists, is just another word for culture.” My argument, in other words, is not an ontological argument about the nature of culture and ontology, but about the significance and effects of the terms ‘culture’ and ‘ontology’ within the anthropological project.

Even so, and after this clarification, many people found it rather puzzling that I would be on this side of the debate -- and indeed, in some ways, I find it quite puzzling myself. I am indeed extremely sympathetic to what has been called the ontological turn in anthropology, and in my own ethnographic engagement with relationality in Corsica, I have been drawing on and thinking through precisely the authors who are usually associated with this new development in anthropological theory. Part of the problem is that the wording of the motion (“Ontology is just another word for culture”) -- and particularly as we shall see the word ‘just’ -- forces me to transform, if you like, my own ontological relationships to the ontology literature, my profound being in the world of theory into an epistemological problem of mere communication, a flattened for or against of debating convention.


But this caveat doesn’t save me from the main question: how does one argue that ontology is just another word for culture? On the face of it, as I said, the position seems untenable. I cannot even bear to contemplate the philosophical complications of espousing such a position in the abstract, and even the far more modest statement I am proposing here, namely a statement about the way these words are used in anthropology, seems far fetched. After all, ontology, or rather ontologies in the plural, are usually introduced within anthropological discourse precisely in opposition to culture. Ontologies are everything that cultures in this sense are not. A common version of the argument rests on mapping the ontology/culture distinction on the ontology/epistemology distinction. The study of culture is cast as merely the study of meaning and interpretation, of people’s episteme. By this definition, culture, as Tim Ingold has argued “is conceived to hover over the material world but not to permeate it.” (2000:340). It follows that cultural anthropology, and crucially, cultural difference, is in fact something rather superficial. As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro puts it: “the epistemological democracy usually professed by anthropology in propounding the cultural diversity of meanings reveals itself to be […] highly relative, since it is based in the final instance on an absolute ontological monarchy, where the referential unity of nature is imposed.” (2003:18). The ontological turn in anthropology is thus presented as the way out of the epistemological angst of the 1980s, of those who would “write culture” and thereby, it is claimed, reduce it to mere signification.

In this context the motion sounds extremely provocative, as if one were trying to argue that ontology too, like culture, is merely representation, merely a word, merely, in the final instance, epistemology. I will make no such argument. In fact, if anything I believe the opposite, namely that culture was never quite so thin in anthropological constructions - or rather, for there are always people who misuse terms - that those who used culture merely to mean representations were themselves not representative of the far richer potential of this word to take in embodiment, emplacement, affect, and world-making activities. I would argue in sum that to equate culture with ontology as anthropological tools, is to remind us of the value of culture, not to belittle ontology. Michael Carrithers has made the case for the richness of culture as an anthropological term far better than I could hope to do, and I will not venture to try here.

I might just, in passing and out of a taste for mischief, make myself the devil’s advocate and try to rescue even the most despicable of usual suspects in this debate, namely “the writing culture people”. They may perhaps be blamed for fostering imitators who reduced culture to ‘mere representations’, but they themselves -- I am thinking of anthropologists such as George Marcus, James Clifford, Paul Rabinow -- had read Foucault and Foucault had read J.L. Austin, and none of these people were dupes of the old Cartesian dualisms. They were well aware that, as Viveiros de Castro writes in a Deleuzian form, “all thought is inseparable from a reality which corresponds to its exterior”, or, as the point is put even more forcefully in the introduction to Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell’s volume Thinking Through Things, that “concepts are real and reality is conceptual”. I would in other words, be rather more generous in terms of who I include within the hallowed theoretical family of radical constructivism (which is radical essentialism expressed backwards). By my own kin reckoning, Austin, Foucault, Rabinow, but also others such as Ardener and with him the ‘Oxford Identity studies school’ for instance, are all “our own”, as much as Deleuze and Latour. I do draw the line at Bourdieu however - (just in case you thought I had no standards at all).

So one way to argue this seemingly indefensible motion would be to restore culture to its full potential as an anthropological word - to show it is, or rather it has been and can be, as good as ontology at doing what ontology does, namely at engaging not just with a plurality of world-views, but with a real multiplicity of worlds. We would in any case, need to remove the dismissive word “just” from the motion. Ontology is another word for culture, and that’s great! Or one might even reverse the statement: when used fully, culture is just another word for ontology.


But I would like to make the point slightly differently. I will begin by asking what exactly is the relationship between ontology and culture that is implied in the motion? If ontology is another word for culture, it is not the same as culture. Or rather it is the same again but different. It is another word for culture, an other word for culture. This statement, in fact, allows there to be many differences between ontology and culture, differences which make them other to each other. So in what sense am I arguing that they are words for each other, and not just say, words against each other? They are words for each other because amidst all their differences there is one difference which relates them. The difference which relates culture and ontology is the difference they both point to. Ontology and culture are both words that point to an other - and it is in this sense that they point to one another.

In other words, ontology is another word for bringing home to anthropologists the fact of difference, of alterity. This is what ontology and culture have in common: both are pointing to the fact that there are others, that anthropology is, in Viveiros de Castro’s words, the type of cogitation that “assumes the virtual presence of Another as its condition”. The late 19th century shift from singular capitalised Culture to the multiplicity of cultures, and the shift from the single Ontology of philosophy to an anthropology of ontologies can therefore be seen as analogous moves - they both serve to inscribe difference at the heart of the anthropological project. Not of course, an exclusive, oppressive difference, but a relational, productive difference -at least that’s the hope. This is where the concept of ontology, like the concept of culture will ultimately stand or fall - I will return to this point later.

Ontologies usually come in when anthropologists feel that culture has ceased to perform this function, that culture does not take difference seriously enough. The need for the word ontology comes from the suspicion that cultural difference is not different enough, or alternatively that cultural difference has been reduced by cultural critics to a mere effect of political instrumentality. By contrast, ontology is an attempt to take others and their real difference seriously. It is in this sense that ontology comes to stand in for culture, at a time when culture has lost some of its analytical and rhetorical punch. To use a monetary metaphor, one might suggest that there has been a hyperinflation of the term culture: the notion of cultural difference has been brought into general circulation, reduced to a mere representational game, shown to be subservient to the needs of identity politics. As a result it has suffered severe deflation as a term to point to actual difference. The turn to ontology is thus something of a return to a gold standard, a powerful move to re-inscribe difference into the very heart of the world -- or at least into the heart of anthropological method.

So far so good, and this interpretation of the motion makes it seem fairly uncontentious: ontology is another word for culture insofar as both are anthropological ways of talking about difference. They talk about difference differently and some would argue that ontology takes over where culture fails. But there is a basic heuristic continuity there. This is so uncontentious in fact as to be almost banal - is it even worth saying?


Unsurprisingly perhaps, I think it is. Because when it comes to thinking about difference, culture has had mottled past. We need only turn to the previous GDAT debate to see that difference is a difficult thing to handle and different uses of culture have made difference into different things - some we would subscribe to, some we wouldn’t (or at least I wouldn’t). There have been extremely subtle uses of culture in anthropology to think through a difference that is ever-shifting, thick and yet relational, partly shared and partly personal, generative and complex. In fact, Ira Bashkow (2004) argues quite convincingly that even Boas’s original understanding of culture presented cultural boundaries as irreducibly plural, perspectival and permeable. Poor old Boas, the ur-Relativist, turns out to have been smarter than we thought - perhaps it is time to extend our genealogy even further?

And then there have been much cruder uses. As Tim Ingold noted in a comment during the previous GDAT debate “in the standard cultural relativist position, difference was diversity and diversity meant that there were groups of people that had certain properties which were different. The model for this was species diversity and cultural diversity was modeled on biodiversity”. This kind of diversity is less palatable, and I agree with Ingold’s further claim that “what we are striving for anthropologically is a different way of articulating what our understanding of difference is”. Similarly, Annemarie Mol, following Strathern, notes how important -- and how difficult -- it is to go beyond such versions of cultural difference, which propose a world made up of “cultural packages, coherent inside and different from what is elsewhere” (2002).

This is why it is not just banal to point out the heuristic continuity between uses of culture and ontology in anthropology. It is important to remember that insofar as ontology takes over from culture the heavy burden of dealing with difference, it also takes over the difficult problem of how this difference is to be located, situated, delimited. I am not of course arguing that anthropological uses of ontology necessarily replicate the bounded versions of cultural difference denounced above. Annemarie Mol, quoted above, is a striking example of the opposite, her account of ontology in medical practice being both radically situated, located, particular (in one word ethnographic) and yet incommensurable with any group of people -- her account is of a hospital in Holland, but it is explicitly not a story about a specifically Dutch ontology, for instance (Mol, 2002, pp. 170-183). Similarly, Henare, Holbraad and Wastell’s claim  that “there are as many ontologies as there are things to think through” (Henare, Holbraad, & Wastell, 2006, p. 27) suggests a conception of difference which is miles away from that of coherent cultural packages associated with groups of people.

What I am saying however, is that while ontology can be used in such subtle ways, we should not be lulled into a false sense of security by contrasting nasty old boundedness of cultural difference with the far more subtle multiplicity of ontologies. As Annemarie Mol poetically puts it: “Generalizations about ‘the literature’ draw together disparate writings that have different souls” (2002, p. 6). This is as true for ‘the literature’ on ontology, as it is for ‘the literature’ on culture. Within each literature there are multiplicities and essentialisms, things that are radically new and things that are carried over from previous theoretical or pragmatic positions. For one thing the very resilience of anthropological discourse tends to drive new words into old furrows. Insofar as ontology is used to talk about difference it keeps popping up where one would have expected culture. Under the pressure, perhaps, of anthropological convention, many accounts of ontology specify as their subjects human populations, broadly geographically conceived: Amerindians, the Maori, Melanesians or Swazis. It cannot be not merely co-incidental that the outline of disparate ontologies so often tends to map, in practice, onto what would previously have been called cultural groups. One could in principle map ontological differences between two Jain ritual specialists disagreeing about the proper way to conduct a specific puja ritual, between nationalist and anti-nationalist villagers in the north of Corsica, and so on and so forth -- but this has not been the norm in anthropological accounts of ontology so far.

For some, such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, this zoning of ontology not just on people but on “a people” is an explicitly tactical and political move, the logical extension of an earlier strategic essentialism, undertaken despite certain misgivings about the dangers involved in such a move: “The image of Being is obviously a dangerous analogic soil for thinking about non-western conceptual imaginations, and the notion of ontology is not without its own risks. […] Nonetheless, I think the language of ontology is important for one specific and, let’s say, tactical reason. It acts as a counter-measure to a derealizing trick frequently played against the native’s thinking, which turns this thought into a kind of sustained phantasy, by reducing it to the dimensions of a form of knowledge or representation, that is to an ‘epistemology’ or a ‘worldview’. […] I shall conclude by once more claiming that anthropology is the science of the ontological self-determination of the world’s peoples, and that it is thus a political science in the fullest sense” (Viveiros de Castro, 2003, p. 18). This is not necessarily the place for a debate about strategic essentialism, but such tactical uses of ontology will run up against the familiar problem posed to similarly strategic uses of culture: who is supposed to be in, and who is out of the “people”? Who decides on membership? Can one belong to more than one people? And so on. And as Viveiros de Castro suggests, grounding these distinctions in Being makes such questions rather more urgent and risky than they were before.

And then there is the famous meta-contrast between Western or Euro-American ontology and a plurality of non-western ontologies out there. I will not rehearse the well-known critiques of taking such a distinction literally. As Tim Ingold notes of the terms ‘Western’ and ‘Modern’: “Every time I find myself using them, I bite my lip in frustration, and wish that I could avoid it. The objections to the concepts are well known: that in most anthropological accounts, they serve as a largely implicit foil against which to contrast a “native point of view’; that much of the philosophical ammunition for the critique of so-called Western or modern thought comes straight out of the Western tradition itself […] ; that once we get to know people well – even the inhabitants of nominally western countries – not one of them turns out to be a full-blooded westerner […]; and that the Western tradition of thought, closely examined, is as various, multivocal, historically changeable and contest-riven as any other.” (Ingold, 2000, p. 63). Marilyn Strathern preemptively countered such objections when she wrote in The Gender of the Gift: “I wish to draw out a certain set of ideas about the nature of social life in Melanesia by pitting them against ideas presented as Western orthodoxy. My account does not require that the latter are orthodox among all western thinkers; the place they hold is as a strategic position internal to the structure of the present account.” (Strathern, 1988, p. 12). Once again, I am not suggesting that there is anything necessarily wrong with transposing this binary from the realm of “Western culture” to that of “Euro-American ontology”. But I am suggesting that the same questions arise concerning the nature of this distinction: is it purported to be merely heuristic or is it a description of a state of fact? The shift from culture to ontology does not rid us of this question, on the contrary, it rather sharpens it.


In some ways, as I said at the start, I have set myself up to argue an impossible proposition. Ontology is of course not the same thing as culture, if either of these words is to mean anything at all. Even in anthropological usage, the more limited field in which I have chosen to argue, ontology is not the same as culture. My argument has been, in brief, that ontology is another word for culture because and insofar as both words, as anthropological heuristics, are used to point to difference. I accept that this is rather tenuous, and I am fully resigned to the rhetorical spanking which will probably be the outcome of my espousing this position, indeed of my attempting to argue for a motion cast in such provocative terms. My friends were probably right to be concerned. But the serious point behind the playfulness, is that the difficult conundrums which dogged the anthropological study of cultural difference do not disappear when we shift to an anthropology of ontological alterity. If anything the conundrums are sharpened. If the motion fails to carry the debate, but we have managed in the process, to put that point across and prompt some discussion of what kind of difference ontological difference is, then this will have been a productive failure.


References Bashkow, I. (2004). A neo-Boasian conception of cultural boundaries. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 443-458.

Henare, A., Holbraad, M., & Wastell, S. (Eds.). (2006). Thinking Through Things: Theorising artifacts ethnographically. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ingold, T. (2000). The perception of the environment: Essays in livelihood, dweling and skill. London: Routledge.

Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: ontology in medical practice. London: Duke University Press.

Strathern, M. (1988). The Gender of the Gift: Problems with women and problems with society in Melanesia. London: University of Californa Press.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2003). And. Manchester papers in social anthropology, 7.