Tag Archives: anthropology

Cultural Style: Jazz & B’ball, Classical & Football, and Beyond

10 Aug

This is a set of out-takes from my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. In this passage I’m pursing a notion from mid-20th Century, an idea that provided Ruth Benedict for the title of her best-known book: Patterns of Culture. The title conveys the idea: cultures aren’t arbitrary collections of attitudes, activities, and traits; in matters large, small, and in-between they display patterns.

I begin with a passage that contrasts jazz and classical music on the one hand with basketball and football on the other, where jazz and basketball embody one style while classical music and football embody a different style. I then continue with a series of passages that move on from that to general styles of corporate organization, contrasting the hierarchical industrial corporation with the flatter and more fluid style that has emerged in high tech companies. I conclude some brief observations from my experience with one such company.

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First, confining ourselves to the expressive sphere, let’s consider two brief examples from sports, which is, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger society. It is not difficult to see a thematic similarity between classical music and football, on the one hand, and jazz and basketball, on the other hand.

Football involves highly specialized players organized into elaborately structured units, enacting preplanned plays, and directed by a quarterback representing the coach/composer. Each team has eleven players on the field at a time, with the players being trained for very specialized roles. There is an offensive squad and a defensive squad—not to mention special-purpose units for executing and returning kicks. Each of these squads is, in turn, divided into a line and a backfield, with further specialization in each of these divisions. The offensive team is headed by the quarterback while the defense is similarly directed by one of the backfield players. The flow of the game is divided into four quarters each of which is punctuated by the individual plays of the game. The plays are divided into sets of four, called “downs”, with the players conferring between plays to decide what to do on the next play, or, at least, to confirm instructions sent in by the coach.

Basketball uses a smaller number of players, five, whose roles are less rigorously specialized. There is no distinction between offensive and defensive squads. And, while there are differentiated roles—a center, two guards and two forwards—this differentiation is not nearly so extensive as that in football. For example, on the offensive squad in football, there is a dramatic distinction between the interior line, whose players do not routinely handle the ball, and the backfield, whose players are supposed to handle the ball. No such distinction exists in basketball; all players are expected to handle the ball and to score. Beyond this, basketball involves a free flowing style of play which is quite different from discrete plays of football. Continue reading