About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Defining culture

Perhaps one of the most difficult things in speaking of culture is determining what we mean by "culture." Depending on the discipline, culture can be a tool, a level of cognition that contains values, language, methods of communication, shared processes and understanding, and "world view" based on history, shared experience, and the environment, or a perception of the social structures within which people function (Anthrobase, Culture)
However, anyone who has crossed culture boundaries or lived within multi-tiered cultures, realize that "culture" is very difficult to put into words. Sometimes, it is easier to look at ways in which culture can be described, rather than describing what culture is.

The Problem of Sterotyping

One of the problems in using different ways to describe a culture is that people will rigidly categorize a person as belonging to a certain "culture" having predefined values. As humans, we have developed a natural instinct to interpret data about other people based on our experience. When we meet a person for the first time, instinctively we look for certain traits to identify if a person is a threat, a friend, or someone we can't define. This is natural survival instinct.

However, an individual may or may not fit the pattern of our experience, knowledge about other cultures, or our schema based on appearances. Therefore, it is important that we look at any stereotype or ways of categorizing culture as a tool to understanding an individual's action, trying to determine if actions can be explained because of an individual's culture, personal or group experience, education, or other reasons. I often tell my students that stereotypes in and of themselves are not bad, but rather the use of them, especially to pigeon hole or limit another's opportunities can be wrong.

In addition, many of the categories for a specific culture might become outdated as cultures are visceral and ever changing. Technology, changes in population and demographics, environmental changes, and even the interaction between specific cultures may change the nature of how a culture might be categorized.

There are three models of categorizing cultures that are commonly used in multiple disciplines: Florence Kluckholm's five orientations (Time, activity-free will, relations: individual vs. collective vs. communal, relationship between person and nature, and human nature: good, evil, mixed), Hall's high context/low context cultures, and Hofstedes cultural dimensions (Power Distance, Individualism/collectivism, masculinity/femininity, tolerance of ambiguity, time orientation).

Kluckholm's Five Dimensions

Gallagher has a good comprehensive description of Kuckholm's orientations. Her work was based on an analysis of 5 different native American tribes in the 1950's. They include:

  • Time (Past, Present, Future orientations)
  • Activity (doing, being, becoming)
  • Relations (Individual, Hierarchical, community)
  • Person-Nature (Humans dominant over nature, humans in harmony with nature, Nature dominant over humans)
  • Human nature (basically good, basically evil, mixed or free will)

These dimensions are often used to understand how different societies place different values on environmental and societal factors. Often these dimensions are used to describe values for cultures and subcultures. For example, while mainstream US values are described as having a "doing" orientation, the hispanic subculture is identified as having a "being" orientation. This means that the majority of Americans would be expected to "do" things to be accepted as a viable member of society. This means active problem solving, constantly working (even if unemployed, a member of society would be expected to "do" something such as look for a job or volunteer as this is a value in our culture). However, in the hispanic culture, it is better just to accept the limitations of the situation as just "living" is an activity in and of itself. These differences in orientations would explain why one culture interprets (or misinterprets) the actions of another culture based on the dimensions of their personal culture. A "doing" culture might interpret lack of "doing" as laziness or other negative interpretations. A "being" culture might interpret constant activity as domineering or empty gestures. Thus, there would be a tension due to a lack of understanding between the two cultures.

Hall's Dimension

Edward T. Hall, in Beyond Culture, presented a continuum of high context and low context cultures. This was based on the methods of communication within a certain cultural environment. A high context culture requires a high level of contextual understanding of the situation and environment within which a message is delivered. There are many rules and multiple ways in which a message can be interpreted based on the context of the interaction.

For example, the Japanese culture is considered a High Context culture. There are subtle messages in a welcoming bow between two Japanese that someone who was not raised in the culture would be able to discern. The parameters of meaning with the bow is learned through experience as a Japanese child is raised and acculturated. A "foreigner" would not be expected to understand the subtle differences and a "native" would never be able to explain what the differences are.

On the other hand, a low context culture is one in which there are a few explicit rules to the culture which can never be broken. These are clearly articulated. However, outside of those rules, there is a lot of room for maneuvering. There is often the impression that those from a low context culture are rude and domineering, because they are used to being explicit. New Yorkers, for example, are low context and are perceived as lacking subtlety. There is also a greater level of explicit negotiation of meaning within low context cultures. However, if a rule of communication is broken, there is outward hostility.

High context and low context can also be applied to values and not just communication. High context cultures would assume a shared level of values that are not articulated, whereas low context cultures would have a few "core values" outside of which there is a great level of diversity. As a result, cultures with a high level of diversity tend to be Low Context, whereas homogeneous cultures tend to be high context. This makes it difficult for outsiders to be accepted into a High Context culture, even those born outside of the culture to parents who had been born and raised into that culture. For example, children of Asian parents raised in the US have difficulty connecting to their parents' culture in Asia.


Probably one of the most popular and misunderstood/misused model is Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions. Hofstede collected data on employee values in 70 countries. From the data, he established 4 categories, which was then extended to 5 recently. One of the short comings of the study was that the company he initially looked at was a multinational company, meaning that the study was biased towards people who might have had an international bias.

Because of this weakness in the study, there has been a good body of research over the last 40 years since the original study. As a result, there has also been a reinterpretation of many of Hofstede's dimensions that have deviated from his original intent. Rather that add to that confusion, I would suggest that you read his work directly.

The one area that Hofstede addresses that the other don't is the location of power within a culture and the impact that has on interpersonal relations, society, and roles. It also helps to explain the forces that allow a culture to develop and the direction of those cultural changes.

Over the next few months, I would like to look at the following issues:

Culture and Technology

Levels of Culture
Culture and Education
Cultural Change
Culture and Knowledge
Cross-cultural communication

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