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the potential of (sub)culture

phenoms's picture

Last week I was reading some chapters from "Agendas, Alternatives, and Public policies" for my political science seminar and came across a passage that really resonated with me.  
"There is a difference between a condition and a problem. ...As one lobbyist said, 'if you only have four fingers on one hand, that's not a problem; that's a situation.' Conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them. Problems are not simply the conditions or external events themselves; there is also a perceptual, interpretive element." (109).

Although the author is speaking specifically to the challenge of agenda setting in public policy, the sentiment stretches beyond his intended meaning. It fits nicely into the themes of this week's reading: culture as disability. The broad consensus (although they diverge on the particulars) between Grobstein, Varenne, and McDermott is that culture creates the confines within which certain characteristics or abilities are valued. It sets us up for cognition based on normative values. For example, one is born a certain sex (whether it is male, female, or intersex), and in the US, the condition of sex becomes a problem when the child is born intersex (i.e. as a culture, we decide something needs to be done to fix the child's sexual assignment). However, when looking at non-western cultures, for example India, intersex (Hijra) is accepted as a legitimate alternative to the dichotomous male/female binary.  

I can't completely swallow Grobstein's image of an idealistic world without hierarchies or negative differences. It's overly simplistic. However, if we examine the movement of culture more closely, we see that the danger is often when a dominant culture becomes so all-consuming that it wipes out the subcultures that exist within it.  Violence and attempted eradication of Hijras began during British rule. McDermott and Varenne examine the subculture of deafness on Martha's Vineyeard, which existed until the mainland tourist industry invaded. I don't think we need to erase culture as we know it, and start from scratch, but instead work at preserving, protecting, and promoting the countless subcultures from the indiscriminate flood of dominant culture.