Cultural Genealogy: Method for a Historical Sociology of Culture or Cultural Sociology of History

Family Inheritance as a Model of Cultural Genealogy (3)

Chandra Mukerji University of California, USA

If Nietzsche defines the problem of cultural genealogy, and what needs to be known in order to analyze it, he does not elaborate the method for studying it.

For this we need to turn to sociology. If we model cultural genealogy on family genealogy, we have a way to begin. We can take the rules of recognition and sources of inherited traits that influence family resemblance, and treat them as a more general model of cultural descent. Lines of descent, viewed from this perspective, have three obvious mechanisms: transmission of information (genetic and social), socialization into forms of life (roles, practices and identi- ties), and meta-narratives about that life to explain its meaning (context and self-consciousness). Family culture can be seen as a subset of culture in general, but importantly, one that treats inheritance very seriously.

The comparison of families to communities, nations or social worlds may seem counter-intuitive since inheritance of family traits has a genetic base that does not necessarily apply to cultural inheritance (although it has been used to define nations). But physical limits on descent have counterparts for other groups. Towns often face constraints from environmental conditions that constrain and help repro- duce logics of life. They end up managing the environment and controlling natural assets in just the way families do with sexuality. Social control of physical possibil- ities in both contexts shapes transmission of characteristics across generations.

There are also non-physical tools of cultural transmission: memory prac- tices, cultural toolkits, and codified forms of tacit knowledge. The information conveyed in these forms may not be genetic, but it is crucial for cultural continuity (Bechman, 1993; Carruthers, 1990, 1998; Long, 2001; Schwartz, 2000; Swidler, 1986).

Socialization is also key to cultural reproduction because it is an intentional effort to shape new recruits into good group members. Socialization includes teaching the skills that sustain social worlds and institutions. Having a cultural toolkit is one thing; knowing what to do with it is another; and having reason to use it is a third. Recently I learned that a few companies in the Midwest continue to reline copper pots even though copper cooking pots have fallen out of general use. A few important customers, mainly beer makers, want copper vats for brew- ing. Because of this, the companies maintain the skills and materials for the work, and make it available to others who want to repair old cooking equipment. The intersections of social worlds, then, can also be crucial to the reproduction of cul- tural skills. Faced with the expectations and demands of others, those who are being socialized learn how to make themselves recognizable and useful members of their communities. They develop an identity as part of an on-going world.

In addition, people use stories of descent and character to define what traits characterize a family or community and the value of inheriting these attributes. They are often origin stories that make sense of on-going practices and ideas. They define what is possible or comprehensible in people and social relations, and in that sense, help define group life. They cover over illegitimacies, or reveal them as aberrations. Just as family character is often maintained by narrative accounts of predecessors and their lives, so national character is expressed through stories of the founding fathers and community identity is associated with the founding of a town. Stories can even attribute provenance to the local culture, tracing it back to the ‘old country’ or original aboriginals. Narratives about cities, neighborhoods, and ethnic groups all define how members of the group should see themselves, and what standards of conduct they should embrace. As in Orwell’s 1984 (1950), they shape the future by defining the past. All these mechanisms may seem impersonal and abstract, but all their effects on cultural reproduction lie in human action. People socialize others, and tell each other stories. They make toolkits out of experience, and experi- ment with techniques of collective memory. So, we can find and follow the sub- jects who do the work of remembering and forgetting the cultural past. We can see them assemble resources and disseminate techniques, or draw a cultural line against others in order to secure an identity for themselves.


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Papers from the Archives du Canal du Midi are marked as ACM with a file and document number. Some of the documents are titled; others are not. There are a few printed sources from the archives:

Le 14 octobre 1666, l’Arrêt d’adjudication des ouvrages à faire pour le canal de communication des Mers en Languedoc est promulgué. Ce même jour, le Roi ‘fait bail et délivrance à M. de Riquet des ouvrages contenues au Devis’ préal- ablement défini sous l’autorité du Chevalier de Clerville. Reprinted in ‘Edit du Roy pour la construction d’un canal du communication des deux mers, Océane & Méditerrannée. ACM 03–10.

Claude Bazin, ‘Bail et Adjudication des Ouvrages à Faire Pour la Continuation du Canal et du Port du Cette, 20 Août 1668’, 9, section x, Archives de Canal du Midi (ACM), folder 07, item12 (07–12).

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