What is it possible to say and think about culture?

In a non-essentialist approach we try to avoid using stereotypes to define and confine the characteristics of members of ‘a culture’. We recognise that national or ethnic cultures are largely ‘imagined’ – ideologically defined, the constructs of political, nationalistic, militaristic or other such agendas and narratives – carved by the modernistic structures of nation states. Nevertheless, a lot of people continue to find the concepts meaningful and want to be able to talk about them. I for one want to be able to say that  when I first went to Iran I became absorbed in the culture – without insinuating a bounded exclusive thing that defines the behaviour, values and attitudes of all the people who are somehow considered to be ‘in’ it. I want ‘Iranian culture’ to imply a more porous set of practices, productions and influences that at goes beyond, inspires, but doesn’t confine people. I want it to imply something big – a huge canvas that people look at, contemplate, have their lives changed by, creatively contribute to, and indeed infuse with particular values, histories, principles, and so on – but can pass in front of, walk away from, challenge, change, take part in from foreign places, appreciate from great distances, and be who they want to be within its sphere.

When ‘culture’ is used in this sense, it is therefore a more figurative use; and it has nothing to do with defining and describing, but with a feel, an atmosphere – a sense of being that actually defies definition and loses its focus the closer one looks at the detail of it – because at the closest level of detail people are just people. It becomes an impossibility to say ‘in Iranian culture, …’ with any sort of defining phrase. I want it to imply the nature of civilisation, but as something expansive and reflexive, not competing and rejecting.

But if we want to describe a culture in any sort of precise terms – to talk about a culture with any sort of definable behavioural features, this is a very different matter and cannot be about large culture as civilisation. It must be about small cultures.

Where culture, whatever it is, can be seen to be working in a describable manner is in one’s immediate vicinity, wherever you one happens to be near people. I have been looking back at what I said in my 1999 ‘small cultures‘ paper. I define small cultures as ‘small social groupings or activities where there is cohesive behaviour’. At the same time, when we think about what we can say about small cultures, it helps us to see what we can say about culture in any circumstances.

We all seem to know how culture operates in the smaller entities such as companies, families, sports groups and so on. We can commonly talk about how the culture of our organisation, or of the other department down the corridor, or of our own department needs to be changed, is changing, is like this or like that, is conducive to this or to that and so on. And I don’t think that when we do this we get carried away and imagine that all the people who work there are somehow defined by these cultures to the extent  that the culture becomes the essence of who they are – in an essentialist way. When we leave the place where we work at and go home of meet our friends in a sports club, we might join with the spirit of the cultures that we find there and behave in very different ways. Of course we will also have our own personalities, histories, anxieties, dreams and preoccupations that will mediate how we move between and make sense of these cultures.

Also, at the small culture level we can begin to see the beginnings of the ideological forces that generate imagined essentialist notions about ethnic and national large cultures.

We may be unlucky, or lucky, enough to be, or have been, part of work or other small culture groups that are particularly aggressive in how they promote particular cultures of behaviour through training. The military or some professions are like this – or perhaps some religious groups or cults. And sometimes people who belong to such groups might find it harder to move to others. But, nevertheless, I think we are also used to seeing around these things – seeing them for what they are. Even when we take part in intense cultural competition with say another sports team, and take part in heavy and sometimes aggressive rituals of opposition – chants, clothing, body painting and tattoos – there will be parts of us that can step outside this behaviour.

This sort of competing with the Other does however take us into the domain of powerful ideologies that can overwhelm and take over everything that we are, or that we might buy into with an all-possessing totality. The discourses that represent these ideologies can invade us with their language and ways of conceptualising things. Sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all sorts of fundamentalism, can lead us into huge, blind inhumanities.

This temptation to Other is referred to in the central small culture formation domain of my grammar of culture; and it is a vicious Self and Other politics – the sometimes gross, extreme hyperbole of who we are in opposition to the people we don’t like. While culture might not actually be mentioned, judgements about exaggerated differences in behaviour and values will often become the imagined ‘evidence’ for the need to discriminate.

This then connects with the other sort of reference to ‘culture’ – the large culture stuff, where all sorts of things just seem to get out of hand. My association of this sometimes national or international domain with ‘ethnic’ earlier in this blog of course raises a contentious issues. We sort of know what nation is, at least where it appears in the passports of those of us who are lucky enough to have them, or when we need visas. Ethnicity is even more subjective. The issue however is not so much whether these things are objectively real or not, but rather the way in which they are claimed as prescribed.

There seems to be a great irony here. I am arguing that at the small culture level we can begin to see how large culture imaginations and claims come to be. It can also be argued that the people who spin these imaginations and claims are treating culture as civilisation as though it were a small culture. They are attempting to pull the big canvas of human experience down to the level of an organisation or a company or military unit. This can unfortunately be a highly successful enterprise, at least for the short term. But as with small cultures, as soon as people have the opportunity to leave, they will not be confined.

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