Definition of Culture

Kevin Avruch

Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: What are you talking about exactly when you say culture?

A: That's one of those words that comes with 155 different definitions. It also comes, as I've begun to write about lately, with a whole lot of political baggage that comes to us from the 19th century. Leaving that aside -- and we can't leave that aside for very long, partly becauseparties to conflicts use culture as well, the way a social scientist understands culture is that it is that it is learned and shared ways of behaving appropriately in social settings. It's things that people learn by virtue of belonging to a social group. These things are encoded in cognitive structures, schemas, paralinguistic structures like metaphors, and language. Then they're also publicly encoded in symbols and values.

Culture is learned; it's shared, more or less. The degree of sharing that is always an empirical issue is a social setting, and it's passed down from generation to generation, which gives it some kind of traditional force. But it is also created. It is also emergentbecause it represents people in ways in which people face the dilemmas, such as the problematics in everyday social life, including conflicts and disputes. What it is not, is it is notencoded in the human genome. It's socially created.

The ability to acquire a culture is probably genetic in the same way that the ability to acquire a language is genetic. The culture that one acquires is very much a matter of contingency, and an accident in the same way that the languagesis that one learns is a matter of contingency or accident, personal or historical.

Q: What about political baggage? That sounds something like "the white man's burden" type of baggage...

A: The term comes to us from the 19th century with several different meanings. One meaning is the sense of high culture -- classical music, art, Shakespeare and so forth -- the kind of Matthew Arnold notion of culture as something that the educated few have, and that is certainly not how anthropologists use the term.The other meaning of it that came to us from the 19th century is from the German romantic tradition. Culture really became a stand-in for race. It became a thing that different people possessed, a spirit that set them apart from other people. That meaning of culture is one that is still widely used by ethnic and nationalistic politicians who want to use culture as a kind of bulwark against others. Part of the problem with looking at cultural issues is it is a "technical" term in the social sciences that has been appropriated by the players themselves....

A: I've been talking about culture, up till now, implicitly in the sense that we mostly understand it as sitting inside ethnic groups or national groups or religious groups or linguistic groups. In fact, culture also sits inside institutions like universities or militaries. It sits inside occupations like engineers or lawyers. When you actually get to a negotiation you're really dealing with a multi-cultural arena where you not only have people from, let's say, different nationalities sitting across the table but people from different occupations. Let me give you an example of that. The political scientist Terry Hoppman, studied the Test Ban negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. He wrote that although there was definitely an American-Stalin negotiation (something that Fred Eckley wrote about very very long before) it was also the case that very, very often the Soviet scientists and the American scientists had less trouble understanding each other, and talking to each other than did the Soviet diplomats and the American diplomats.

If you look at a contemporary, what are called humanitarian interventions, it may be that the American military person on the scene, part of a UN force, and the Pakastani Colonel on the scene will have less trouble talking to each other on issues like force protection or perimeter security of something, than will the American Colonel and someone from CARE or someone from Save the Children; even if those folks are themselves American and grew up in the same town. It is the case that culture exists because it is emergent in any coherent social unit. The social unit is usually thought of as an ethnic or national or religious unit, but can also be an institutional unit or an occupational unit. You're correct that if you're trained as an engineer, military officer, as a physician in Mexico or the U.S. or Canada then you're definitely share similar orientations towards problem solving or cost-benefit analysis, let's say. I think there will be interesting differences, too, but there will be a lot that's shared and that's one of the reasons why international business can occur to the extent that it occurs because people share basically kind of underlying capitalist concepts, neo-capitalist concepts.


A: I think the one thing that people really need to know is that culture really does matter, cultural differences matter. Culture is never everything and it is never the entire cause of the conflict. I mean except in the very special sense in the failure to communicate, like if you are speaking Spanish to me and I am speaking English to you and we don't understand each other, and we reduce culture to language. We can then say that the cause of our misunderstanding is culture. There are a lot of misunderstandings that occur when both of us speaks English, speaks Spanish, or one of us is a skilled interpreter. Culture is very rarely the root causes of conflict, but it is always the lenses through which the causes of conflict are reflected.

Q: So in the old onion metaphor, culture would be one of the layers that you would have to peel back to get to the inside.

A: I am a little mistrustful of that metaphor, as I am with the tip of the iceberg metaphor. I much prefer lens to onion. Think about it, if I take off these eyeglasses, I don't see the world more clearly because I have removed the lens that allows me to see the world. What I see is things less clearly. Onion implies a layer you can get over, and I don't think that you can get over culture but I think that you can get through it

Q: Ok, it occured to me because the discussion about if not ulterior, then more core motives or causes of the conflict, are likely to be power or political rather than culture, in that sense peeling away the cultural element, or the excuse of culture for conflict.

A: You could think of it that way except that very often the way in which power will be expressed will be so affected by culturally understandings about authority, dominance, and legitimacy that its hard even to see power nakedly as some pure variable.

Q: You wouldn't understand it unless you were able to see through that lens or at least know what the lens looks like. Suppose I couldn't entirely see through someone else's cultural lens.

A: No, you can't, but even knowing that the lens is there can take you a ways.