Although culture is one of American anthropology’s signature analytical concepts, interest in the culture concept has waned in recent decades. In this talk, I discuss this phenomenon and its impact on the development projects I observed in Central Asia. Drawing on four years I worked in Kyrgyzstan as a development professional and ethnographer, I argue that the lack of cultural anthropologists’ influence on the topic of culture has, at least in the development sector, empowered simplistic and ethnocentric (and familiar) discourses about diversity and social change. To effectively counteract these discourses, however, cultural anthropologists must update their understanding of culture. This can be done by incorporating insights from the latest research in biological anthropology and systems theory. If today’s popular usage of culture justifies one-size-fits-all visions of human well-being, a reinvigorated understanding of culture will be able to inform more constructive development interventions in Central Asia and beyond.
Noor O’Neill Borbieva is professor of anthropology at Purdue University Fort Wayne. Her research, on gender, religious change, and the development sector in the former Soviet Union, has been published in numerous journals, including Slavic Review, Central Asian Survey, and Anthropological Quarterly. Her book, Visions of Development in Central Asia: Revitalizing the Culture Concept, was published by Lexington Books in 2019.