Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Culture Concept

Deep culture undercurrents structure life in subtle but highly consistent ways that are not consciously formulated.  Like the invisible jet streams in the skies that determine the course of a storm, these currents shape our lives, yet their influence is only beginning to be identified. 
                                                                                    ---   Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, 1976

A half century ago, in Beyond Culture, anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward Hall exhorted what he called the enterprise of “cultural literacy.”  Understanding that cultures were different solution sets to recurring life problems—resulting in cultural relativity--can help us to appreciate, then reconcile, the cultural distinctions causing problems on the world stage. 

Cultural Analysis, as worked up over the past three decades, is one of the outcomes of that enterprise.  How can insights from culture as an integrated thinking framework, as mind frames, not just a collection of customs and costumes, be unearthed and deployed?

How culture works – American style
As a shared pragmatic toolbar, culture condenses and clarifies decision making by supplying a subtext of shared values.  This background acts as a screening device for all sorts of decisions.  From the allocation of time and attention (who do I spend Christmas vacation with this year since my parents divorced—Mom or Dad?)  to career (If I decide on medical school, what will this career cost me in time, attention, energy, and family resources?  Should I leave my tenured teaching job to start my own consulting business?)  

In answer to this last dilemma, in the US, as a center for entrepreneurship: yes, go for it—even though the ten-year success rate for new businesses is just one in three (Small Business Administration, 2019).  While this less-than-half statistic argues clearly against, the culture says do it anyway—the risk is considered worth such a noble independent effort, which is a showcase for our ultimate faith in personal genius.  The same endorsed effort drives professional sports, media celebrity, venture capital, science, music, art, and literature.   Because American culture values individuality above everything else, the entrepreneur is the American national hero, and a lifestyle model for free-market capitalism worldwide.

Besides the free market, US cultural values inform these decisions by rubrics like majority rule, a future (ahistorical) orientation, and general tolerance for risk-taking—including the failure rate, like the two-thirds majority for businesses (with a full 50% failure rate at the five-year mark).  Building in a value directive that works on autopilot across groups and centuries converts the natural stress of such decisions into a far easier-to-manage set of habitual thinking habits that don’t require constant problem-framing setups, idea-searching, or group debate.  This releases time equity for other projects that don’t operate on the basic survival or well-being ground level, but require group consensus at some level. A prime example is the US space program of the sixties, which President Kennedy exhorted the nation to push not because it was going to be easy, but for the opposite reason – because it was intrinsically hard to achieve.  This equation is in perfect alignment with US cultural values, meaning “We can do this. It’s a challenge, so we’re going for it.”   This same message, that “It will be difficult” read into a Japanese context, would be taken to mean “It’s impossible.  Don’t try it.”  In the Japanese reading, “difficult” could be projected into “failure,” which implies social disruption and possible disaster.  Americans (the space program again) accept failure as a necessary component of trying new and difficult ventures. Of course, to read the differences goes much deeper than language because it’s culture speaking.  (Lindsay McMahon, 11.17.11, 

Beyond description
Such judgments are the bread and butter of cultural analysis, whose mandate is to deconstruct artifacts, events, behavior, and language to discover their “inner life” as value markers.  What is the most relevant information that can be de-engineered from the big data of culture?  What are the most telling clues about what people say, do, and think within their home culture, then compared to another culture?  This means determining what questions need to be asked.  This goes beyond ethnographic description in order to elicit insights to yield salient cultural intelligence we can use to understand ourselves and others in terms of core beliefs and motivators.  My favorite starting question about any cultural feature is “What is this for?  What are people trying to do and be in terms of core values through this tool, artifact, ritual, habit, or belief?” 

Useful answers depend on following a trail of clues based on posing the right question. Museum labels and consumer research aren’t often helpful here.  Culture insight requires another level of perception and evaluation.  It isn’t easy to get at, which is because cultural core value is the highest-ranking kind of knowledge to hold.   It asks not just what, or how, or who, but the million-dollar research question, which is “Why?”  Asking the Why question can lead to the alignment of practice and theory (values) that can reveal the ideals that drive culture as a motivational engine.  It explains, for example, the heavy stress that is the cost of freedom of choice in America.   This can be discerned as different in kind from the Japanese stressors as the outcome of commutarian cultures, with different causes and attempted solutions.

Cultural inclusion
Ever since Richard Hoggart at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England coined the term Cultural Studies in 1964 (The Uses of Literacy in 1957 was the start-up document), the influence of culture – the invisible yet irresistible force—now includes mass media and digital technology.  This inclusion extends the domain of culture, ancient to current, to become a focus of study in its own right, beyond a descriptor of foreign ways of life, extending back to antiquity (and prehistory) and into future inquiry as global and extraterrestrial human mind frames.  Going back to my own work in the field of Popular Culture, the boundaries of what culture can be have now far surpassed the older liberal-arts meaning of Culture as the elite in art, literature, architecture, music, and media, or as ethnic rites and customs in exotic environments. 

We can now regard culture as the great universal system that unites all people around their encounter with problems, potentials, and opportunities, however much the detail and description of those cultures may differ in what they advocate (their lead values).  Culture is the single most powerful force that all humans obey and have followed for at least the past 50,000 years as worldwide human migration was completed.  This historical period marks the final emergence of modern humans as evidenced by established civilized group life—jewelry, art, tools, and ritual objects.  At this point, the shape of the human vocal tract allowed for the sound range of modern speech.  Language is learned by childhood just by hearing it in one’s group, just as culture is embedded in the brain of a certain size—based on a measure of 1450 cc—ours as well as the first homo sapiens sapiens.  This leaves 95% of our common past without written language, far more recent at just 5,000 years ago.  This is important because cooperation allowed by communication is the bedrock of civilization--as Exhibit One of behavioral modernity.  Civilization marks our coming of age as cultural creatures.

Anthropologists have been at this enterprise many decades without a uniformly accepted definition for the field of studying “what makes us human—including biology, communications, and the history of humankind” (Hall, 1976).  So far cultural analysis can distill this study into a working definition of culture:

Culture is the uniquely human invention, passed on and built across generations, that works as the mind frame shared within the group, designed to solve problems across the board from individual to social goals and purposes.  Culture works to ensure survival, guarantee group cohesion, and inculcate the next generation, while self-perpetuating its own set of ideas and ideals across generations. 

James Burke’s The Knowledge Web (2000) takes apart the history of informational networks from “electronic agents to Stonehenge and back.”   As the most extensive integrated information system of them all, “enculturation” acts as a kind of instant expertise available to any and all, built up over thousands of years by millions of humans living in every environment.  This expertise is the outcome of the neural network of culture’s multiple knowledge webs, echoed in the learning activity that can now be visualized in the structures and wiring of the brain itself.  Language and mathematics, the twin basic means of encoding information, along with visual intelligence, are the leading tools of knowledge-sharing produced by culture.  It is the leading toolkit of humanity.

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