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What Is Culture?

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Diversity Atlas’s Customer Experience Manager Quincy Hall explores What is Culture? He looks at the intricacy of the word and why a definition remains elusive.

If you were to purchase a murder-mystery novel with the catchy title, Who Killed the Prince? and in the opening paragraph the author explained that you’re never actually going to find out whodunnit and the book is just an explanation as to why the Prince’s murder is unsolved, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve been ripped off by the bookseller.  Likewise, we’ve run with the clickbait-y title What is Culture? and sadly in this opening paragraph I have to confess: you won’t find an answer here.  

What is ‘culture’? I do cultural diversityfor a living and I can’t answer that question properly.  I can answer the question ‘what is diversity’ with Shakespearean eloquence, but ‘what is culture’?  Umm.  I’m not sure, exactly.  Sometimes I think I have my head around it, then I’ll read some piece by someone far more invested in the research (and much smarter than me) and I realise that like Jon Snow, I know nothing. I flip, I flop.

What is culture? The best answer I have is: “Depends who you ask.”  

But what I think I can do, and will attempt herein, is to explain why it’s so hard to come at a definition, take a peek at some features that cultures (no matter how you define them) might have in common, look at a case-study, and finally, discuss how Diversity Atlas intend to allow for these complexities and nuances in the near future.

Depends Who You Ask

I made up a joke.  

A sociologist, a biologist, a religionist, a psychologist, a Marxist, a political scientist, an historian, a linguist, a philosopher and an anthropologist walk into a bar.  

The barman says:  “Well, aren’t you a cultured lot!”  

 “Citation!” they scream in anger at the barman, so Keith the post-modern bouncer (who believes that the human sciences should only be studied through an epistemic lens) kicks them all out into the rain.  

Hmm, the punchline needs some work, but the premise will do for now.  

During the course of the past six years, as Diversity Atlas was ‘under construction’, Cultural Infusion completed more than 300 literature reviews to infuse the platform with the most meaningful insights into both the history and the most-recent thought leadership in and around cultures, and by extension, their definition and measurement.  The understanding part of that venture was successful, the measurement aspect was also successful and the subject of a scientific paper, but part of the process of piecing the information together was acknowledging that a coherent and concrete definition of culture in and of itself is elusive. 

Our resident genius Rezza Moieini managed to work out that one’s identity is largely dependent on factors such as language, country, religion/worldview and, tellingly, cultural identity via ancestry, ethnicity and other cultural markers, and that gave him the knowledge and impetus to create the Diversity Index, but even so, while Rezza could make a ‘count’ of the cultures, the precise definition of ‘culture’ was still up for grabs.

For many of us, it’s something we feel more than we know, and putting words or names to it often falls short.  

One conclusion of our research found that the concept of culture is littered with (as put by one of our researchers, John Garzoli) “…an untidy volley of meanings.”  That’s an understatement.  It’s as untidy a volley of meanings as a David Lynch movie.

The anthropologists gave it a red-hot go though; all credit to them for creating an avenue to give the study of cultures its own seat at the mahogany academic table, but even the most erudite of modern anthropologists would be the first to also concede that the definition of culture is not agreed upon – in fact, it is less agreed on now than ever, given the amount of effort made by other strands of enquiry.  But the anthropologists of the past at least gave us this more answerable question:  How are humans different, and how are they the same?  It’s a perfect question (one which Diversity Atlas exists to quantify and qualify).  

Is your ethnic group your culture?  Is your region, state, country or continent your culture? Or your religion, if you have one?  Or your sexuality?  Or your family traditions?  

One notion that keeps coming up is that a culture, at a bare minimum, should or could have ‘shared values’, but even that most basic premise doesn’t sit well with me.  I think of my own culture, or at least the one that I would select if completing my own Diversity Atlas survey… ‘Australian.’  I have a gut-feeling as to what Australian culture is (something to do with footy and pies and mateship and larrikins) but I’m also fully aware that my ‘gut-feeling’ is absolutely a product of my anglo heritage and the fact that I was born and raised here in a suburb of Melbourne and went to the local high school where there was a stack of kids just like me.  

‘Shared experience’ (with others just like me), sure, but ‘shared values’?  That’s never a given.  And at what point anyway is something Australian culture, and at what point is something Australian society?  I know I belong to Australian society, but Australian culture is largely a construct of my own brain, egged on by tropes and symbols and warped by geography, sexuality, body-shape and a zillion other things that makes me me.  Meanwhile, I’ve had people suggest that unwittingly I’m nothing but a remnant of Christian culture and/or English colonialism, and I can see the academic and historic verism of that analysis, but I simply don’t feel it in my bones.  Mum likes cups of tea, I don’t mind cricket and there’s a few Christmas Carols I like belting out, but that’s the end of my emotional ties to Anglo-Christianity.  

To what culture do I belong?  The nearest I can get is a sub-culture that I have spent 30+ years immersed in – ‘punk rock’  – and even then there’s still no guarantee of shared values among us ageing rockers.

So what of other parameters, if not shared values?  Shared aims and objectives, perhaps?  Does a culture exist to achieve an end-point?  Does culture have some teleological purpose?  Again, depends who you ask – a religionist, for instance, may suggest that a culture exists in order to provide an infrastructure or architecture for the individual to prepare for a supernatural eternity; but is that a culture in and of itself, or a belief system, or a community, or a congregation?

Depends who you ask.  

When diving through the literature reviews, we see time and again academics straining to find the right words, but they’re locked into a premise, set in stone by their genre of study.  Each and every one of these great thinkers make a compelling argument, enough that each time I pore through their works I’m convinced they’re right, but then I jump to another field of academic inquiry that might be at odds with the first one and I find myself all at sea.  Who’s right?

Dewey for instance says:

“… culture may be defined as the habit of mind which perceives and estimates all matters with reference to their bearing on social values and aims”

But Parsons says:

“Culture is both a determinant and product of systems of social interaction.” 

Meanwhile, Sewell says:

“Culture as an institutional sphere (is) devoted to the making of meaning.”

But Goodenough says:

“… culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.”

And yet Swidler says that culture is:

“…the means through which social processes of sharing modes of behaviour and outlook within a community take place.”

The breadth and depth of the study of cultures can be overwhelming, and there’s little doubt as to why we can’t answer the question ‘What is Culture?’ in a Diversity Atlas newsletter, nor do justice to the decades of work each and every great academic and field-thinker have undertaken and published over the centuries.  

Having said that, there are some ways of approaching the question with a little more ease.  One great summary of cultural connectedness can be found in a run of words uttered just last week in a Zoom meeting by Cultural Infusion’s anthropologist, Kevin Porter, when he suggested that people within a culture might or should have a ‘shared set of concepts’. 

Now that makes more sense to me.  It’s opento variation, easy to grasp, and does not prima facie nullify any of the statements above.  ‘Shared concepts’ infers that the members of a culture need not necessarily hold shared values, but instead share concepts, which could include (but not be limited to) conceptual understandings of the values to which they disagree upon, sometimes vehemently.

One last little run of words I have also become attracted to was unearthed in our literature reviews into the work of the German sociologist Max Weber who wrote that “…humans are motivated by material and ideal interests. Interests are the engines of action.”

“Engines of action,” hey?  It is little wonder that every commercial research piece published by the McKinseys and Deloittes of the world show that more culturally diverse organisations are in turn more productive and profitable (albeit without ever explaining fully why this is so).  If we think of cultures (no matter how defined) as ‘engines of action’ it seems quite reasonable to deduce that more engines leads to greater output.  To add credence to this explanation, Swidler, referenced above, also made an assertion that cultures provide a “…‘tool kit’ of symbols, stories, rituals and worldviews”.  More engines with more tool-kits?  More productivity!

The Greek Freak

Let’s now take our heads out of the theory and into the practical.  

I love sport, but basketball is not on my list of Top 100 sports.  I’m just not into it (although I much prefer it to golf, which is of course the stupidest of all sports).  But our CEO Peter Mousaferiadis is a fan of one particular basketballer that he often refers to in the context of cultural identity. 

Giannis Adetokunbo, known as ‘The Greek Freak’, is recognised as being perhaps the best basketballer on the planet right now; in fact, Disney are in the planning stages of making a movie about his life.  

Let’s bullet-point some facts about the superstar:

  • He was born and raised in Greece
  •  …to Nigerian parents, who were from different tribes in Nigeria
  • He was not given citizenship on Greece until he was an emerging star (and when he obtained citizenship, the Greeks changed the spelling of his name)
  • And now lives and kills it in the USA

To what culture does Giannis belong?  In his own words:

Obviously, I was born in Greece and went to school in Greece. But at the end of the day when I go home, there is no Greek culture. It’s straight-up Nigerian culture.”

Note:  Giannis referred to “it” being the culture, not that he himself was culturally Nigerian.  Rather, the home/house, or the environment is.

The Greek Freak is a beautiful mixed bag of tribe, ethnicity, language, citizenry, exposure, birth and probably a stack of other parameters we can only guess at, and so how on Earth could he answer a straight-up question as to what his cultural identity is?  There’s a myriad of options!  From government censuses down to HR questionnaires there has never been enough attention given to the nuances of cultures in both the datasets from which to choose and the amount of answers one can give.  It’s not just The Greek Freak, it‘s everyone.  We’re all a kaleidoscope, a confluence of cultural markers and sometimes permanent, sometimes transient belonging and it’s nuts to narrow down our cultural identity to just one umbrella term.

What is Culture?

Depends on who you ask, which is why we are asking you.  Currently, the Diversity Atlas platform asks this question:

What is your cultural and/or ancestral heritage?

For this question the participant can choose up to four from a dataset of 8,500 (about 8,000 more than any other commercially available survey).  And yet, we have decided that even this is too restrictive and does not capture the nuances well enough.  For this reason, and at the urging of Peter Mousaferiadis, we will be splitting the question into two.

1.     What is your ancestral and/or ethnic heritage?

2.     To which culture/s do you belong?

Note:  The wording is still undecided.  

For each of these questions, the participant will be offered the chance to enter four selections, so in total that will bring us to eight possible cultural identifiers – will that even be enough?  More to the point, that second question will be expanded to well beyond the 8,500 exiting entries so that it may include (for instance) ‘Christian’ or ‘Marxist’ or ‘Feminist’, so as to capture the true cultural identities of the participants, self-described, with no pre-conceived premise or judgement from our end as to what constitutes a culture in the first place.  What we have learned about the ‘volley of meanings’ in and around the question of What is Culture is that the global study of cultures, to which we now offer our own input, must be put back into the hands and minds of people themselves.  

It will be fascinating in particular to see if people answer both questions the same, or differently.  Back to our Greek Freak… would he answer ‘Nigerian’ (including finding his parents’ tribes) for both, or just for the first one?  In this fashion, we will be able to build a case study for the fluid nature of cultural belonging and identity, and using a data-driven and intersectional approach, track how people truly understand and identify themselves. This is a deep-dive, deeper than the Mariana Trench, and it’s knowledge for organisations and teams, and knowledge for its own sake as well.  

On top of all that, in cahoots with our CTO Rezza Moieni, we are adding a question to our platform that will read something like:

What are the most important aspects of your cultural identity?

And the answers will include such fields as ‘my religion’, ‘my country’, ‘my sexuality’, ‘my ethnicity’, ‘my politics’, and a host of other options.  We will offer participants the chance to order their answers by priority, and as a culture-buff, a champion of diversity and a data-nerd, you can imagine just how excited I am about this soon-to-be launched product update.

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