Monday, June 6, 2016

What Is Culture FOR? The Culture Question

What is Culture FOR?  The Culture Question

“We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is.”

--Dorothea Lange, documentary photographer

What do our cars, food, sports, movies, electronics, homes, and jewelry do for us?  How do they create our world and direct our responses to it?  This is the “cultural question.” That’s because the grand array of culture is never just about things, people, places, and experiences.  To understand our own ecology, the world made by and for humans, we must be able to move from objects and events into the depths of what it all means—and why.

This means transforming information by refining it, using analytical tools, into the far richer material of intelligence.  It is not enough to observe and describe.  Somewhere, somehow, the raw material must be refined to become research gold. 

The mandate

This mandate of cultural analysis is simple but not easy: to search through the record of human behavior and weed out the “ethnographic dazzle” —a term coined by British anthropologist Robin Fox to mean “blindness to underlying similarities between human groups and cultures because one is dazzled by the more highly visible surface differences.”  These are the fascinating but essentially meaningless behavioral variations that divert attention from the deeper core drivers behind any cultural aspect—a thing or experience—to explain how and why it motivates its buyers and users.

Over the years our analyses have involved categories as diverse as diamonds, steaks, swimming pools, shoes, lawns, milk, and car mufflers.  As well as space exploration, college education, real estate, careers, fine art, and male-female bonding. In all cases we posed the same questions: How do people actually USE these categories as tools? What are they FOR? What makes them so useful that the categories and behaviors are passed down from generation to generation?

If you understand people and their priorities, all this falls into place as a grand array of exemplars; templates for the way people think, act, and make decisions on any aspect of their culture.  We isolate and clarify the top facts that describe these aspects as operational on the ground, how they work for us and evoke action, meshed with what’s already in the mind.  

And if people use it, have ever used it, want to use it, or will use it in the future, it’s part of culture.  And very often the way things are designed to be used are seldom the way they actually get used outside the lab, by real people in real time.


As much money and time as people spend on swimming pools, after the first few months, they stop swimming regularly and instead use them as water features  or as landscaping backdrop for parties. It’s a cultural trope – a mini theme which intuitively appeals because, when you think about it, people don’t live on land alone. They settle where the land meets the water.

Similarly, as exciting as space exploration is, the public identifies with living human astronauts, not with billion-dollar robotic equipment. Machines can’t replace humans in the public imagination. The one exception – the Mars “Rovers” – they have a dog’s name, and look something like robotic dogs – our oldest nonhuman companion as a species.

In another category, a college education isn’t about education as much as it’s about becoming a fully socialized person, building class (as in upper and middle) affiliation. You can’t sell a university by stressing academic rigor because education as a value is assumed at any school. Excellence isn’t a distinction here.     

Culture on the outside

When most people think of “culture” they think of it on stage, behind glass, in museums, libraries, archives.  That’s one level.  Then there is the other end of the scale – the culture of the houses, the fields, the streets and squares, the direct link between campfires of 200,000 years ago and the television and social media of today.  It’s what people do around the fire - tell stories about who they were, how they got here, and what is expected of them – that our early hominid ancestors did, and we still do today. It’s not what it is (fire/television) but what we use it for – that’s Culture the Tool.

Our mission as analysts is to understand how cultural values motivate behavior and social thinking.  We do this by examining the evidence of these values over long time frames, from ancient and pre-history to the present.  The historical record of what groups have paid for with their money, time, and experiences is basic evidence—far beyond what people say they do and want—for what they really believe is important. 

Culture is the ultimate case of groupthink.  It is the body of knowledge and custom passed from generation to generation in the oldest heritage system on earth.  But culture is far more.  Museums and archives collect and preserve the rich treasury of past artifacts, from bones and stones of prehistory to high-tech artworks and computer devices (in their own museum) of the digital near past.

The jewelry case

While we most often consider culture as the catalogue of these exhibit pierces, material culture is just the outward production, the showcased expression of culture in three dimensions.  In fact, jewelry is the first finding or clue (predating clothing) to be discovered as an insight into the mind of prehistoric people. The beta form of personal adornment (as termed in material culture) certainly has more to tell us about universal human values (or what we can call the “permaculture”), as underlying the roots of any culture now living.

Beyond metalworking, precious and semi-precious stones, and the earlier bead, bone, feather and stone example, all jewelry has a story to tell that extends from prehistoric to contemporary and from here into the future of culture.  From wedding rings to chains of office and military medals, jewelry has been almost entirely about relationships – to other people, our bonds with them within organizations, and our attainments of distinction.  That’s not even on the list of where jewelers think value lies in the formula “carat, cut, clarity, and color.”  That’s how jewelers buy diamonds. Customers buy symbols of relationships. If you don’t believe that, ask any woman to talk about her jewelry. You’ll get the whole story.

Jewelry is just one visible facet that tells us who we are by what we value.  Sports is ritualized violence and head-to-head competition in a palatable, rule-bound form of conflict, running from chess to football.  In the tech arena, computers revolutionized communication by making what people already do faster, easier, and cheaper—whereas computing was originally seen as a tool for a scientific elite working with math.  Word processing is now the central writing activity, essentially turning computing into letter-writing at digital speed with global reach.  

By examining the evidence for its core human value, we can build an analytical system to “read” from the big data what all our artifacts and behaviors mean at their deepest level.