Christoph Antweiler: Was ist den Menschen gemeinsam. Über Kultur und Kulturen. Darmstadt 2007. 391 S.
In a time when cultural conflicts are increasing, "clash of civilizations" seem to be inevitable and discussions about common values in conduct and behaviour, in belief systems and in basic forms of mutual respect on a worldwide scale: in such times, any contribution to a better understanding of culture and cultures must be welcome. And this is the intention of this book, compiled and written by a cultural anthropologist with a long record of research in the fields of multi-ethnicity, cultural diversity and/or intercultural comparisons of human norms and values.
The book's main emphasis and focus is directed towards the question of "universals", i.e. towards characteristics that are identical, at least, however, similar in and to all cultures. After two more general introductory parts on the overall topic and intention of the book (p. 17-52) and on concepts of universals, historical as well as in the context of different disciplines (p. 53-133), the author proceeds to the core of this publication: a both systematic and comprehensive survey of universals, their methodological approaches, their taxonomy and their "ideological contents" (p. 134-274). Taking the biological nature of mankind as a starting point, chapter 6 lists no less than 16 universals (carefully termed as a selection!), which are considered to be basic assumptions of most cultural entities. It would go far beyond the possibilities of this review to comment on this selection. But the author's unquestionable command of the relevant scientific literature and his ability to synthesize make its reading stimulating and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, not all characteristics are dealt with in equal length so that some of the universals (the reviewer would prefer the term "universalities") are presented in a more convincing way than others. However, the following chapters on methods, taxonomy and explanations counterbalance those shortcomings. They offer a broad spectrum of sometimes controversial or even contradictory theoretical and/or empirical information. This may not always and necessarily clarify the issues at stake, but it documents the problems and imponderables of such an all-embracing approach. No doubt: the commendable efforts of the author and the intentions of the book make it a welcome contribution to the present discussion about cultural unities and diversities. It is not easily to be read, but always inspiring and demanding.
The author seems to be well aware of potential shortcomings of his work. He has therefore added an extensive glossary of approximately 300 technical terms and their definitory meanings, covering a broad spectrum of comparative cultural anthropology. An annex with different attempts to systematize universals is surely a welcome addition, but also and at the same time proof of the almost hopeless diversity of such attempts. Finally, an extremely voluminous bibliography with more than 1,200 titles is testimony not only to the author's admirable control of an extensive scientific literature, but also to the by no means easy access to the problems of "universals". This book is important, but it surely is hard to digest: the central question of the book title, what may be universal to people of different cultural backgrounds, remains more or less unanswered. Culture and cultures are obviously more complex than title and subtitle seem to suggest. Thus, the main value of the book may be seen in its meritorious presentation of anthropological universals/universalities versus their particularities.
Autor: Eckart Ehlers