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Rethinking the Notion of Culture: The Role of Prefixes
Christian Giordano, Department of Social Anthropology
University of Fribourg
The holistic concept of culture as defined by Edward B. Taylor and his successors, North
Americans in particular, has proven insufficient to analyze societies in the globalization era.
In fact, this concept tends to essentialize culture, thus to reduce it to a coherent and monolithic
whole of cultural traits and models as if these were natural phenomena and not social
constructions implemented by the actors themselves. Apparently, therefore, social sciences
and cultural sciences would need to abandon the notion of culture, which would be
tantamount to doing away with these disciplines. This article endeavors to show that the
concept of culture can still be valid albeit through a change of paradigm, i.e., if, instead of
focusing on the analysis of complex cultures, the focus shifts on the cultural complexity
within a given society. Starting from this assumption, we need to affix the prefixes multi, inter
and trans to the notion of culture in order to express three different forms of cultural
complexity. The prefix multi underscores the stability and the deliberate separation among the
various ethno-cultural communities that constitute a social body. The prefix inter, instead,
calls to mind the relations among groups from different cultures. Finally, the prefix trans
highlights the ability, especially of single individuals, to transcend one’s own belonging, thus
to move from one cultural community to another or to construct hybrid identities through
processes of creolization.