What is a small culture?

Is a small culture an actual place with boundaries, or is it a shifting, transient, ‘on the go’ collection of practices and values which has just enough permanence to be recognisable?

Let’s consider a small shop in the high street. Its natural boundaries might seem clear – the definable space inside where the people who work there and customers and all the things for sale and advertising them reside, plus the window for display and the bit of street in front. More debatable might be the store room at the back or the place where the employees take breaks. The designations of these physical domains will be constructed differently by each of all the people involved, depending on what’s going on and how they feel.

This physical place is not however the small culture. It is instead the sum of the cultural behaviour that takes place within it. Again, all the involved people who either pass through or work in the shop, or who go there to research it, will have different subjective accounts of what this is, and, in-so-doing, will contribute to and change the culture. 

Part of this may also be a particular corporate culture that the management have constructed as part of the shop’s ethos or brand. This will demand a particular style of customer-facing behaviour of the people who work there as well as the fabric of all the artefacts of selling. This could be strong or weak, subtle or explicit.  

Where it is explicit, as soon as we walk in, we find ourselves in a very different place from what we are used to. The assistants behave differently to how they do in other shops. There are innovative signs, displays and employee dress, perhaps with a strong colour image. COVID social distancing might bring another layer with issues of personal safety and anxieties about how we should behave. There will also be a specific language – a discourse – in the artefacts, signage and layout and how the employees speak.

Engaging with any of this, whether we work there or pass by, is small culture formation on the go. Everyone needs to work out how to respond – to stay or leave, challenge or confirm. This positioning will depend on all the cultural practices and values that all parties bring from elsewhere. The small culture is not therefore a closed entity, but has negotiated, shifting, porous and imagined boundaries, all of which, again, will be different to all involved parties.

This means that even a tightly designed corporate culture is negotiable by all the employees. They all need continuously to position themselves – to make daily decisions about how far and in what ways to conform – perhaps because they are inspired, worn down, or have bigger goals and dreams. Even when they conform to the practices and values of the culture every day when at work, they are not confined by it. Each bring and go back to diverse behaviours and values from the rest of their lives. 

There is therefore a sense of transience for all the people concerned.

The question is what can we learn from this about how culture operates everywhere.

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