Welcome to part two of my series on creating knowledge cultures. In this chapter I talk about the early pioneers who started to define culture from their anthropological roots by focusing on a top-down view of cultural forces within nations, people groups, communities and organisations.
This is a light treatment of these authors who have made significant contributions to theory and research in the wider social sciences.
2. The solution to the paradox of culture
Anthropology & Geertz
Arguably the best known and possibly most influential anthropologist of recent times is Clifford Geertz. His seminal work, The Interpretation of Cultures (Geertz, 1973) is still quoted by many today and played a central role in changing the definition of culture from a general catch-all term to describing a semiotic concept of social connections within which man is suspended; and the analysis of which was then redefined as an interpretive search for meaning (Ibid, p.5).
An ethnographer, Geertz claimed that ‘thick description’ was the only way to study the culture of societies. By thick, he meant a recorded enquiry that includes as many observations about a scenario as possible. For example the actor’s background, race, emotional, financial & social state, political and environmental factors, everything the ethnographer can discern. Geertz claimed that to break down such an observation into its component parts would be to rob it of its ability to function as a useful record.
This thick description is then run through a process of analysis which involves sorting out the cultural symbols and their structure and then use these to interpret the situation – if possible – without bias from one of the elements or by the ethnographers beliefs (the later leading to the most hated claim of ethnocentricity).
Of course the concept of removing the key elements via this analysis, distorts the context of the scenario, and reduces the significance and accuracy of the research. Geertz admitted this claiming that “Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete” (p.29) and went on to define cultural analysis and interpretation as more “a refinement of debate”. But being committed to this methodology meant he used the same logic to pronounce as anathema, anything that sought to crystallise cultural facets into universal principles or ascribe them to properties of the human mind (p.20).
Watching first the behaviourists, and later the lingual cognitivists and their attempt to apply privacy theory to the problem of culture, drew forth Geertz’s scorn (p.12). The assertion that to break down a scenario, for example a wink, into its component private parts, i.e. the contraction of the muscles controlling the eyelid, not only robbed it of any ability to be interpreted, but also led to the assumption that meaning, therefore, must exist externally. The obvious target for this reasoning must then be the cultural symbols that an ethnologist would be so familiar with. This is exactly where his logic took him, and the early cognitivists could offer little by way of response.
Geertz went one step further, claiming that since the study of culture could be restricted to symbols and objects – upon which men have impressed meaning – empirical studies would make ethnography “a positive science like any other.” (Strauss and Quinn, 1997, p.14)
In the early 19th century, Auguste Comte – the founder of sociology - developed a philosophy which later became known as positivism (Garbarino, 1983, p.20). The central tenant of which is “any system that confines itself to the data of experience and excludes a priori or metaphysical speculations.” (Britannica Online, 2005, 'positivism').
In the early 20th century Logical positivism rose to prominence in the sciences and Geertz sought to rest his ethnographic methods on its empirical credibility just as Comte had done with sociology 100 years before.
Positivism in cultural studies tends to ignore the “wet” neuro-psychological aspects, not because they don’t exist, but because they cannot be empirically measured with any level of accuracy.
Mainstream Conceptions of Culture
Common usage of the social word culture usually refers to one of two meanings:
1) The tastes in art and manners that are favoured by a social group or
2) Behaviour peculiar to Homo sapiens, together with material objects used as an integral part of this behaviour. Thus, culture includes language, ideas, beliefs, customs, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, and ceremonies, among other elements (Britannica Online, 2005, 'culture')
The later is usually referring to behaviours and objects belonging to a particular nation or society, and the science of ethnographic and anthropology in general attacks this head-on. However, the definition of culture can also refer to smaller groups of people and the science of sociology (and to a lesser extent social and organisational psychology) tends to research smaller groups, such as organisations, etc (Rogers and Ellis, 1994, p.119).
Researchers and authors like Geert Hofstede, Peter Senge and Edgar Schein have had considerable influence in this area over the last twenty years. Focusing mainly on large multi-national enterprises as their in-situ laboratories, these and many others have created a plethora of books and papers on the subject of creating, analysing and changing corporate cultures. Many…from the top down.
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