What is culture? Does it matter?

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Steedly, Mary Margaret. “What is culture? Does it matter?” In: Field work: sites in literary and cultural studies. Ed. by Marjorie Garber, Paul B. Franklin, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. New York; London: Routledge, 1996. Pp. 18-25.


Steedly frames her discussion in terms of her concern with how anthropologists' preoccupation with culture is affecting their “academic ways of 'staging the world' ” (p. 19). Her first of two examples that illustrate her concern is her first field work experience working with Lumbee folk curing practices by studying Vernon Cooper. Through observations and interviews, she discovered that Cooper's healing practice combined homeopathy, fundamentalist Christian faith healing, traditional Indian herbal medicine, and some elements of non-Native curing techniques (p. 20). Steedly applied Mary Douglas's (Purity and Danger) concept of spiritual warfare to Cooper, proposing that each individual “body” which he was curing represented the social body of the Lumbee people. When the individual was cured, the health of the Lumbee community was improved. Although Steedly believed at the time that her argument was compelling, she was so uncomfortable with it that she never gave Cooper a copy of her thesis. She summarizes, “It seemed that turning people or events or texts or stories into illustrations, prototypes, or 'sites' of something else erased the very thing that I wanted to capture in writing about them in the first place” (p. 20).

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Vernon Cooper | Faith healing
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