What's it all about? Overlapping Cultures

John L. McCreery (jlm@TANUKI.TWICS.CO.JP)
Sat, 29 Jan 1994 10:18:46 JST

My suggestion that an "us" vs. "them" distinction is prima facie
evidence for the existence of "a culture," has stirred up
several interesting responses. Stephanie Nelson asks if
"cultures" are analogous to "species" and Jackson Roper

> Why is this so? High school adolescents all over the United
>as do inner city gangs. Does this mean that each gang or
>clique that maintains as part of its identification a view of
>other gangs and cliques as `them' is a separate
>culture? This doesn't make any sense, particularly in cases
>of two rival inner city gangs whos experience, beliefs,
>traditions, etc. might be very similar.

In thinking about the questions they raise, I see behind them
the assumption nicely articulated by Bob Graber when he
writes that,

>Culture is the socially acquired way of life of a social group,
>especially an entire society's (1) interfaces with its physical and
>social environments, (2) interactions between members, and
>(3) symbolic interpretations of reality.

The point I want to pick on is captured in the phrase
"especially an entire society's."

It is all too true, I think, that the folk model of culture toward
which we all tend to slip implies ONE CULTURE=ONE SOCIETY,
where a society is conceived of as a naturally bounded monad.
To which I reply,

1) I am quite comfortable myself with the idea that cultures--
and the social relationships with which they are associated--

2) Philosophically, I've got to be right. If cultures didn't
overlap there would be no communication between them. (And,
I must note, the business by which I make my living,
international advertising, would not exist.) Communication
exists. (And I do make a fairly comfortable living.)

3) Historically, the one culture=one society idea is, at heart,
the core of ethnic nationalism, a 19th century, European
romantic ideal with singularly lethal consequences (cf.
Sarajevo, the Southern Sudan, etc.)

4) Empirically, there is more than ample evidence that human
beings can live with multiple cultures as part of their
identities. I think immediately of Leach's _Political Systems
of Highland Burma_. I think, too, of the following passage from
Peter Metcalf's _Where are you/Spirits_ on Berawan prayer:

"It is an area of ethnic fragmentation, reflecting migrations
and countermigrations, wars and alliances, over many
generations. Each community has its own story to tell, each
has borrowed from here an there to produce its own
combination of traits. if sufficient attention is paid to the
minutiae of ritual, each is unique. Nevertheless, there are two
major ethnic cohesions....the Kayan people...the Kenyah...."

Except for the last sentence, which speaks to a situation
specific to Borneo, there is nothing here that doesn't apply
with equal force to Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, North and
South American, the Middle East, you name it. This is the
human norm! The isolated, monadic culture is at best a bubble
in the stream of history. Any other assumption is nonsense.

What then of Roper's gangs? The only thing that may not apply
is "over many generations." Yes, we often assume that a
culture is something into which children are born, a world they
come to share with their parents. This would appear to rule
out the notion that a voluntary association can have a
"culture." But what do we gain by this assumption? A broader
definition would allow us to talk (as others already do) about
corporate, political and other "cultures" in a way that others
already do. More importantly it directs our attention to the
social process by which cultures change as well as reproduce

What I have in mind is the model provided by Peter Berger and
Thomas Luckmann. They use the language of dialectics, arguing
that "social" facts develop in a three-stage process:
Externalization, Objectivication, Internalization. In my blunt
Anglo-Saxon interpretation of what they say: (1) An individual
comes up with something new which he or she presents to
others--as verbal or non-verbal behavior, artifacts, etc. As
long as no one else picks it up it is just, as we would say, the
individual's "own thing." (2) When at least one other person
picks it up, it ceases to be the individual's own thing. The
originator can abandon it; it will, nonetheless, continue to
exist, until everyone who has picked it up also abandons it. (3)
When it spreads throughout a group, it tends to become taken
for granted. From the point of view of new members who enter
the group, it will then come to seem an intrinsic part of who
"we" (the group's members) are. At that point we can talk
about it as part of the group's "culture," which may or may not
be very different from that of other groups.

To end on a less ponderous note: Does anyone but me remember
the bit in David Schneider's _American Kinship_ where he
talks about going around to different ethnic groups in Chicago
and asking them what was special about their families. The
Poles said, "The Polish mother..." The Italians said, "The Italian
mother...," the Jews said, "The Jewish mother...." You get the

Over to you, John McCreery