Does Culture Exist?

In many of my posts I contend that talking about “Christians”, “Buddhists”, “Muslims” and others as a group is often highly distortive.  I contend the same is also true of large-scale secular cultures — these generalizations are an abstract fabrication.  Below are two personal experiences where I confronted the fabrication of an abstract “culture”.  Hopefully these examples show how this is not merely a philosophical question but has real implications.

Medical Training

Part of my medical training was a mandatory course in “Cultural Sensitivity Training” where we learned about the various cultural traits of Hispanics so that we would not be surprised by Hispanic patients and not misread “cultural signals”.  Most of my classmates did not speak another language nor had they lived overseas.  I watched as they soaked up this “Cultures Exist” myth.  Whereas I was full of skepticism at both the accuracy of these stereotypes and if one could really teach sensitivity.

Years later a study came out showing that those who went through training did more poorly in clinical settings with mixed populations than those who didn’t.  It seems that those who had the training went in with rigid prejudices (albeit ‘sensitive’ ones) which the Hispanics patients could sense and that ironically blocked communication.  See this 2005 study as an example.

Peace Corps

--homogenized for easy consumption--

Five years after my medical training, I got a job serving as a Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) in China.  Before deployment to China, all the new PCMOs (each going to a different country) had to report to headquarters in Washington, D.C. for three weeks of training.  One of the training modules was to teach us about the difference between American and other cultures.  Now remember, all the officers were more than 35 years-old.  During the training we were lectured on classic American traits and had them contrasted to traits of other people and how that separated us.

I raised my hand during one lecture and objected that the list only represented some imagined homogenized blend of a select group of Americans and that there are huge groups in America that don’t look anything like the traits being showcased.  I said, therefore, that the same variety and lack of homogeneous stereotypical cultures exists in each country we would be visiting.  The instructor was very upset and many students looked at me puzzled.  I argued a little more but then gave up.

An Interesting Theory

David Chapman, a Buddhist blogging friend, feels that most people born after the 70s tend to have my view.  He calls this fragmented, incoherent view of culture a “postmodern” attitude — one that sees no overriding culture but lots of tiny subcultures.  Whereas he theorizes that those born before the 70’s tend to have a “modernist” view of culture which sees an overreaching general culture.   Being born before the 70s, I don’t fit David’s theory, maybe because of all the various subcultures I played in over the years.  But I worry that classifying generations into modernists, post-modernists,   Gen Xers or whatever is itself problematic for the reasons given above.  Though I can see its usefulness of David’s view,  just as long as no one takes it too seriously and starts sensitivity seminars on how to relate to Post-Modernists!

Questions for Reader

  • How useful do you find using the word “culture” to describe an entire country, ethnic group, sex or race?
  • What do you think of David’s theory?  Does your view of culture, match your age?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “Does Culture Exist?

  1. I think it’s easy for the continuum fallacy to creep into these discussions. An eg. of this would be “because there are infinite variations in temperature, it would be wrong to say a room is hot”.

    For cultures, though the variations are great and the concept of a culture is very fluid it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or isn’t useful (in the same way that hot is still a useful concept even though it’s not precisely defined). For instance, certain gestures, actions and so forth have radically different consequences in different parts of the world and this can be described without much bet-hedging (and needs to be for those going to a place where the difference exists).

    I think the problem you refer to comes with attempts to teach statements of the form “people of culture X are like this”. This will likely be a stereotype and may also be irrelevant, describing a statistical median (which can be about as useful as the average patient temperature in a hospital ward).

    However, cultural training may have a lot more value if it’s teaching statements of the form “in place X, the general expectation is Y”. As an example, “in Tadjikistan, women are expected to wear dresses not pants” — there is much less to debate there and it’s more practical and necessary.

  2. Yes, I largely agree — well said. The problem is that people start to forget that “culture” is a non-existent abstraction which is only a tool. Instead they get tricked into thinking it is substantial instead of just useful. It is hard to get folks to understand how they are tricked by abstractions and averaging. Almost so much so that yelling “It is a Myth” may bring them back to avoiding the trickery.
    Thanx for the comment!

  3. Culture is real, but it is definitely not homogenous. White Americans from Louisville Kentucky are very different from White Southern Americans in Selma Alabama, and the Alabamans are very different from White Southern Americans in Scott County Tennessee.

    Maybe it would be more accurate to think in terms of generalized, overlapping cultural traits. So, for example, many (but not all) of the folks in Scott Co. have a certain set of traits. The folks in Selma have another set of traits, some of which are shared with the folks in Scott Co. Etc.

  4. Hey Will,
    So, what do ALL White Americans from Louisville have in common that can differentiate them from ALL White folks in Selma Alabama? My point is the ALL issue. And yes, as the group gets smaller, the probability of accuracy for any individual probably gets higher. But my point is the probability issue. Culture as a probability thing has value. If we discussed it with p-values and ranges, it might be helpful. But instead, it is taken by many to describe real entities — and the larger the group gets, the less useful it is. IMHO. But I think we may agree — our difference may only be a matter of the degree of distrust in the misuse of the term.

  5. I would say that culture is very real but the strength of a culture is directly tied to the exclusivity of a culture. The more closed off and homogenous a particular group is, the more likely it possesses what could be called “culture”. When two differing cultures exist together I think it can cause a sort of strengthening of cultural identity in both groups.

    Once a geographical area has more than two groups and is “diverse” in the sense that many cultures and backgrounds make up the population, then cultural identification starts to decrease.

    When everybody is different, then nobody is different….sort of. 😉

  6. when two or three are gathered, culture is in their midst.

    i think these studies can be misleading to. like you stated in my last comment and rightfully added “SOME” in there, i feel many cultural training seminars neglect to use this term and instead wrongfully mean ALL. i don’t think that exists.

    because i think this, yet also believe we’re subject to zeitgeists, i’ve been labeled POMO… i prefer the term “recovering modernist” 😉

  7. @terri :
    I can agree with some of what you are saying though perhaps philosophically we may disagree. But I don’t here you talking philosophically — you sound like you are talking in how you feel the implications of this. That part I think I understand.

    @ Zero :
    Sure, others effect us, but there is no culture effecting us. Philosophical again. No Geists (ghosts), so no ZeitGeists! 🙂

  8. there is absolutely a culture governing us. we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, we are subject to history and it’s echoes that persist in human communities and family systems. there are things hanging over our heads and there are actions people do that aren’t fully articulated. this is culture. no getting around it. we’re all subject to it one way or another, yet we don’t perfectly fit a general category.

  9. @Zero

    It seems, as you have noticed, that we couldn’t disagree more in our expressions. Now the job is to find out if we disagree in substance. It could be a long dialogue — if you are up for it (others will probably drop out). But I will try to start it. I think first we must heed Socrates (see my side bar quotes) and define terms. Let’s tackle “culture”. And let’s try for a common starting ground of any given individual. So if you were to say, “The culture that effects her is ….”, I am guessing that you mean:
    a) the knowledge passed on to him by others before her or available to her (important difference)
    b) the facial expressions common to her family, friends, community
    c) the language and way of expressing thoughts she and her community uses
    d) the holidays, sports, activities her community embrace
    e) the clothing common to her community

    and on and on.
    But we can see in this list that
    a) everyone has very different knowledge access. yet alone desire or ability to learn
    b) families express themselves very differently within the same community. I am startled by the variety of communities expressed in my town.
    c) language use varies widely in my town
    d) people embrace different activities, different clubs.
    e) clothing varies by sub-groups and ages

    So, I see no overriding culture that “governs us” or to which “we’re all all subject to” <– note the ruling/governmental metaphors you used (as if coming from on high). There is not ONE GHOST. There are huge overlaping shared practices and knowledge — like a very messy Ven Diagram but those circles are all individuals — there is no entity called “culture”.

    The kids being slapped by their welfare Moms in Walmart in my town experience very different knowledge, emotions, language, and much much more than the kids in the rich private school shopping with parents on smartphones in the expensive malls, yet they may go to the same football game and have very different feelings about it. There is no ONE THING they are all subject too. “Culture” is just a sloppy way to generalize about shared behavior and information traits between individuals. It does not “exist”. “Culture” is a mere heuristic, a fabrication for convenience of generalizing and the generalizations are almost always wrong. Because it is individual people who pass on information or don’t pass it on. It is individuals not a fuzzy ghost called “culture”.

    So either we mean the same thing and are expressing it differently, or you think very differently about this. I think it is the later. I think you have a favored tendency to make ontological entities out of your emotional perceptions and preferences: God, Culture ….

    I think doing such can offer someone powerful tools and I am not debating that. But here I am not arguing pragmatics, but how the mind and language actually work.

    I could be way, way off. Maybe “God” is nothing like this for you and it distracts from the focus of the conversation. So please do help me to get a concrete, operational definition of what a “culture’ is to any individual if you feel I am wrong. After that, we can explore what “culture” is to any large group.

  10. if i had to define culture, i would state that it is 1. a sum total of rules that shape belief, communication, and thinking, 2. refers to particular ways of thinking, acting, and organizing aspects of housing, technology, art, family dynamics, and science, 3. gives coherence and totality in relation to the rest of the world and is transmitted from one generation to the next. or as my Giradian buddy would short-hand it: culture is what keeps you from retributively killing people.

    it is not a fuzzy ghost, it is a very solid thing and you know when you hit a wall or cross a line.. yet it’s not articulated… it’s invisible yet it can be observed. in this view, i don’t think that my tendency to make ontological entities really fits here. so the discussion and equation of God and Culture fits at all nor has any room in this conversation save for “evangelical culture largely has these values…” or “the culture of my church has these attributes…”

    i like psychology and sociology. i’m interested in family systems and generational studies. while you are correct that there are many people who “There are huge overlaping shared practices and knowledge — like a very messy Ven Diagram but those circles are all individuals — there is no entity called “culture”.” i would say the overlaping shared practices and knowledge are indeed culture. what i think we’re actually arguing is not whether there is culture or not, but whether there is a meta-culture, one where everyone is subject to or not.

    i think there is. in your example of the football game and different kids all going all having “very different feelings about it” misses the point that they are all going to the football game. there are rules in football, and there is a pageantry to the game. you know when the cheerleaders will hold up the paper sign and the players will run through it. you know which team to root for or how much school spirit to have, or you’re reacting to those assumptions. there is a “culture of football” both inside the locker room and in the stands. and largely it’s largely an American phenomenon. the culture exists, the rituals are established, and one is either participating in it (to whatever degree) or reacting against it (to whatever degree).

  11. @ Zero:
    That seems to make clear that our stances are very different. No time to reply now, but I look forward to organizing a response which perhaps clarifies our difference (ideally into established schools of though — because I imagine this debate has been had before by people much brighter than us 🙂 ).

    And also, besides our differences, see if there are ways to test the differences. Which is the only way to make progress. Otherwise we’d just have to pause in disagreement.

    Lastly to see if we share stuff.
    But I think your stance and my stance on this issue illustrates very well a big difference between us that manifests itself in several areas of dialogue.
    I am not sure if we played music together, though, that it would interfere much!
    🙂 — so, I shall return

  12. look forward to your upcoming post.

    “I am not sure if we played music together, though, that it would interfere much!”

    no way to tell that if in real life we would ever get to this level of discussion. blogging often works backward, you deal with these big metaphysical concepts before you get to know a person and what he or she does for a living, how they treat their partners and kids, and their mannerisms; in short how they interact with reality vs. how they think about it. odds are if we were playing music together, working together, or even fighting imaginary dragons together in your backwoods with your kids, this wouldn’t matter.

    btw: have i told you about my D&D group in with members from my church? so yea, we’re fighting imaginary dragons, orcs and mud-men on a monthly basis 😉 would you or have you played D&D?

  13. I think of “culture” as a heuristic, and the heuristic changes depending on what I want to use it for. For example, if I’m trying to design a product for a particular market or negotiate some partnership, it’s useful to have a deep understanding of how the people in that “culture” are likely to think. I think this “mind reading” heuristic is a common usage of the word “culture”.

    In his book, “Culture Counts” (excellent book, BTW), Roger Scruton gives a different definition of culture, which is useful for his purposes. He defines “culture” to be what is passed down from generation to generation that teaches children “right feeling” — what they should admire, loathe, etc. So for him, it’s a heuristic for describing something different than the “mind reading” heuristic I normally see people use.

  14. As a Heuristic, I think it can be a very useful concept. But you said, Scruton defines it as “what is passed down from generation to generation that teaches children “right feeling””
    But that varies from family to family as you know. The notion of a culture as it gets beyond the family gets fuzzier and fuzzier so that the culture of a people or a nation is just outright bizarre and almost useless heuristic.

    PS — JS, if you have time to join my dialogue with Luke over at “Crow Mind” (especially my last comment to him), it would be fun to see your insight as another type of Christian than Luke is. Thanx.

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