Culture? "Us" vs "Them"

Thu, 3 Feb 1994 14:14:40 JST

In a private reply to an earlier note in which I argue that "us" vs. "them"
is a prima facie reason to recognize the existence of a culture, Monty
Roper raises several interesting issues. Isn't, for example, "us" vs."them"
a distinction that every child must learn in forming a personality? Does it
follow, then, that every personality is a separate culture? Or, moving to
another tack, don't we find cultures in which, say, men and women's knowledge
and assumptions are different within the same culture? Should we be talking
about men's and women's cultures as separate entities? Even though the men
and women in question belong to the same group? The following represents an
attempt to clarify my own thinking. Any and all feedback will be appreciated.


1. Culture is information.

In contrast to things, information can be shared in a way which allows
the giver to retain what he or she has given. (Things can only be
handed over, thus lost to the giver; or divided, so that giver and
receiver both only get part of the whole.)

Critic: To equate culture with information makes the concept of
"culture" vacuous. Surely you mean that culture is some subset of

2. Culture is information shared by at least two people.

Sharing implies objectification. Culture is composed of "social facts."
2-A. Information included in culture will not disappear so long as one of
those who have it remains alive and is thus in a position to share it
with someone else. It may also happen that cultural information
remains inscribed in things (books, tools, potsherds, landscapes, floppy
disks, works of art....) after all of those who had it originally have died.
It may then be infered by archeologists.

2-B Culture is thus, in essence, "public" information. Here Geertz is
right. There is no need whatever to assume that culture resides in a
private, mental sphere to which access poses special problems.

Critic: Isn't there an obvious difference between information shared for
only a moment, with only minor effects, and information shared by
large numbers of people, across generations, with important and
pervasive consequences for those who share it?

3. Culture is information "taken for granted" by at least two people.

3-A Here is, in fact, where problems in "cross-cultural" communication
usually arise, where in a world where, as Geertz puts it, "we are all
natives now," we run into serious problems in trying to understand
each other.

3-B Do we need to assume large numbers of people? Two or more
suffices to distinguish culture from personality: since the latter may
include information, e.g., a particular childhood trauma, which is not
public and, therefore, not part of culture. I can think of no criterion to
justify choosing a number larger than two.

3-C Do we need to assume that cultures persist for more than one
generation. We could if we wanted to. I prefer a definition broad enough
to let me talk about the "culture" shared by, say, a married couple who
have learned what to expect from each other or the people who work for
Apple Computer, which is not yet one generation old.

Critic: If I want to talk about "a culture," where do I put the
boundaries. Doesn't what you're saying make nonsense of assuming
that a culture is a natural unit.

4. Precisely. "Culture" is a term I use recursively, to refer to the
information taken for granted by any group of two or more people.

4-A. When people say certain things or act in a way which implies the
existence of an "us" and a "them," I feel warranted in talking about the
culture of "us," since the members of "us" must share at least the
information that identifies them as members of the group. How far
their shared information resembles that shared by members is a
question open to research.

4-B I must, of course, be careful to specify who I am talking about, e.g.,
members of a certain gang, members of gangs in LA, members of gangs
in LA and New York, members of gangs anywhere in the world....

4-C I should also, as a matter of course, that like the groups who share
them, cultures have histories. How far the cultures of, say, gangs in LA
c. 1930 overlap with cultures of gangs in LA c. 1990 is another
researchable question.

4-D To go back to where we started, cultures are shared information.
Since information can be shared without being lost, cultures tend to
overlap, interact, interpenetrate, etc.

4-E The idea that cultures are natural units is (a) a relic of a history of
anthropological research focused on community studies, guided by the
needs of colonial administration or both and (b) in terms of intellectual
history rooted in the same biological metaphors that culminate in the
19th century reification of the the one-language, one-culture, kill-the-
other-buggers nation state, which I for one find as morally corrupt as it
is intellectually bankrupt.

Critic: I'm still not comfortable with the idea that culture is "shared
information." Aren't there many cases in which we talk about a culture
then find that its information isn't distributed uniformly; that men and
women's knowledge, for example, is quite different?

5. Good point, but not fatal to what has been said above. A group whose
members share a common culture may include smaller groups whose
sub-cultures do not completely overlap. As long, that is, as the smaller
groups contain at least two members. Groups of one are aren't groups;
they're personalities.

John McCreery (