Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Culture decoded

As an organizational consultant, I often hear leaders say:"We need to change our culture", or "our culture is dysfunctional". These statements led me to look at what the people who have studied culture for the past century, the cultural anthropologists, have to say about what culture really is, and how they think it operates.

Cultural anthropology studies human behavior that is learned, rather than genetically transmitted, and that is typical of a particular human group. These (behaviors, including material results) are called culture.
Culture is the major way in which human beings adapt to their environment. (Nanda, 1980)

These (cultural) phenomena are learned as a shared set of beliefs, attitudes, ideals and values that are characteristic of a particular society or population (Ember & Ember, 1999) How these are learned, the mechanisms that operate to “spread” culture, as well as the theories that explain these, include (but are not limited to):

Diffusion: defined as the spread of a cultural item from its place of origin to other places. An expanded definition depicts diffusion as the process where cultural traits are transferred from one society to another, through migration, trade, war, or other contact. Each society is influenced by others but the process of diffusion is subjective to each society. (Winthrop 1991)

Evolutionism, proposes the "psychic unity of mankind", i.e. - all human beings have innate psychological traits that make them equally likely to innovate. According to evolutionists, innovation in a culture is considered to be continuous or triggered by variables that originate outside the organizational system. This sets the foundation for the idea that many inventions occur independently of each other and that diffusion has little effect on cultural development. (Hugill, 1996)

Acculturation is the process of systematic cultural change of a society carried out by an alien, dominant society, under conditions of direct contact between individuals of each society (Winthrop, 1991). Individuals of a foreign or minority culture learn the language, habits, and values of the dominant culture by the process of acculturation. Individuals in the dominated group enter the social positions, and obtain the political, economic, and educational standards of the dominant culture through the process of assimilation. These individuals, through the social process of assimilation, become integrated within the “dominant” culture. (Thompson, 1996)

OK - so culture is the learned behavior by which a group of human beings adapt to their environment. It can "diffuse", "evolve", impact other cultures through various types of contact between human groups. There are no "good" or "bad" cultures, simply learned behaviors that the group used to adapt to their environment.

Seen from this point of view, the statements at the top indicate a lack of understanding of not only what culture is, but how it operates in the real world of self organizing human groups. My experience is that there is almost always a good reason for the group to hold the beliefs and values that they do, based on the environment that existed at the time that the group initially came into being.

People are interested in organizational culture, and how it changes, and how to influence these changes. It seems to me that looking at the factors above, and the forces which drive them provide a logical basis for addressing the issue of culture change.

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