About boundaries of cultures

I have talked about small cultures as being things that can be seen and described. Does this mean that they exist as things, as entities that have boundaries? And if they do, can we not work up from this and think of there being large cultures with boundaries? And if that is not the case, where is the upper limit of the possibility of actual real cultures with boundaries? Am I arguing that beyond a certain largeness it is not possible for a culture to exist as a thing with boundaries?

These might though be the wrong questions. Indeed, I think that they are the wrong questions – because saying that cultures have boundaries at all is actually just an operational thing – something we do for the purpose of finding out about something else – a heuristic.

operational cultureThis is what is expressed in this diagram, that I have been carrying with me since it first appeared in my 1999 small cultures paper.

The point is that the boundaries of a culture are from our own sense-making. They are operational. We, as researchers, or simply as people looking at the world, imagine boundaries around whatever we are looking at to serve the operation of looking.

There is no particular evidence that the mélange of social life has boundaries at all other than the ones we operationally set – just human activity going on and on, changing its nature as it extends across diverse conditions of geography, economic and political possibilities, and so on. Even where there are national boundaries (which are set by nations), or, at the smaller level, boundaries between buildings, groups employed by a particular entity, operationally defined boundaries may extend across these sorts of boundaries. Indeed, all sorts of boundaries my extend beyond and cross all sorts of boundaries. This is especially the case where communication networks transcend national, building, organisation and other boundaries. And with the Internet this can now be physically seen with a particular ease.

So, we could say that a culture is whatever is going on within the operational boundaries of human activity that we choose to look at. A culture may therefore, for the sake of argument, be part of a family group in a particular room in the residence of one of them, and a vendor in the street below, and the business that the vendor belongs to, extending to her employer and the six other vendors similarly employed in a defined portion of the town in which they work. This could be a culture that ‘lives’ for just the period when the family members deal with the vendor. If this was a longer period of time, then the researcher would decide how long the operational time would be. (Of course, bits of the culture could migrate and live on in other small culture formations.)

But how can I say what I’ve just said in brackets? Doesn’t saying that bits of a culture could migrate imply that cultures as separate entities really exist, so that things can pass between them?

The clues are expressed in the diagram. The operational culture, created by the researcher or whoever is looking, is marked by the dark bubble. However, as explained on the right of the diagram, what happens to be inside this arbitrary bubble has all the features of culture – structures of interaction that people, wherever they come into contact, construct and are organised by. Wherever the boundaries are drawn, culture as an uncountable will be found. In this sense there is certainly something real that we can call ‘culture’ as an uncountable. In other words, something we can call ‘culture’ is taking place wherever there are people interacting. Operationally, ‘a culture’ is any slice or segment of this that we as researchers, or anyone else who is looking, define for the sake of looking. In this sense, any of us may also wish operationally to define ‘cultures’ for all sorts of reasons – perhaps for the purpose of asserting the identity of a particular group of people – institutions, professions, departments, sports teams, and so on.

‘Small cultures’ are therefore all operationally defined segments of the wider real activity of culture. Culture everywhere is a seamless extent of human activity. Small cultures are bits of this extent of culture – bits of culture. They really are like, therefore, the slices of the biological world that we put under a microscope and call ‘cultures’. And whichever slice we look at we will see culture taking place. Different slices, ‘small cultures’, will, on the one hand, have particular characteristics because they are from different places in the uncountable whole.

Slicing and segmenting the seamless cultural whole can undoubtedly have an impact on actual behaviour where the purpose is, successfully, to establish. In the example above, of bits of a family, and a vendor and some people associated with her business, if the purpose is to call that ‘a business’ with a big B, or ‘a company’, and its customers, this may well impact on the behaviour of at least some of the people concerned through a process of institutionalisation, professionalisation, perhaps even setting up a ‘community of practice’.

On the other hand, the slices and segments, wherever they come from, will all share the common material of culture wherever we find it – i.e.  the underlying universal cultural processes that feature at the centre of my grammar of culture.

Going back to the question, therefore, of how possible it is to work up in the demarcation of separate ‘cultures’ from small to large – well, it is simply that the bigger the operational slicing or segmenting, the greater the ideological adventure, or imposition.

All ‘cultures’, small or big, are therefore socially constructed for small or big intentions, with varying degrees of impact and success.

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