1.2.3 - More on Culture: Defined & Refined


More on Culture: Defined & Refined


Discussing culture in the abstract is sometimes frustrating when you are preparing to go abroad, especially when faced with learning an infinite amount of small details about a specific culture. It may seem that understanding broad concepts may not be very useful. However, both "thinking about" how things will be generally in the new culture and figuring out what "to do" when you are confronting real interactions "on the ground" are equally important.

The first view of culture, concentrating on its broad characteristics, is macro or global in scope. This is defined as Culture General-

When looking at how those general characteristics are experienced in one place, we are moving toward the second view which is a narrow, local, complex, microcosmic view of a single setting. This is defined as Culture Specific-. 

There are almost 200 national entities in the world, over 5,000 living languages, and countless sub-groups bound together by the primordial loyalties of ethnicity, race, religion, common history, politics, and "culture." It is nearly impossible to deal exhaustively with the full range of cultural practices found in, say, Bali or Wales or London or Uganda. This is where Culture General ideas and comparisons become so useful. They offer you a set of Cultural General frameworks or perspectives that will give you the tools necessary to understand:

  • the general principals upon which cultures organize themselves

  • the general categories of a wide range of behaviors and world views

  • the ways cultures express their ideas and values

  • how to improve intercultural communication

  • how to learn another culture

  • how to successfully and effectively cross cultural boundaries and return home

The sections throughout this site are constructed primarily from a culture general standpoint. However, there will be many references to culture specific examples from a wide range of contemporary societies. You will see those examples in case studies, exercises, critical incidents, cultural contrast sets, and discussions of individual traits and behaviors.

It is also useful to know how people respond to, and the beliefs they may hold towards, difference. Any cross-cultural journey is going to quickly put you in touch with those attitudes. You will want to look out for:

a.     ethnocentrism-

b.     naive realism-

c.      stereotyping-

Throughout the process of preparing and studying abroad, it is important to guard against the natural tendency of humans to be critical of cultural practices and attitudes which are different from their own, especially in the early stages of adaptation. It is equally easy to make snap judgments about groups or individuals if things are not going well. While stereotyping may be temporarily satisfying to someone in the throes of culture shock, it is destructive and alienating in the long run.

There are two attitudes or approaches that you can consciously cultivate to avoid ethnocentrism and stereotyping, and which will prove beneficial to your adaptation. They are ethnorelativism and using a "cultural generalization-" as a step toward understanding the individuals you meet abroad.

Ethnorelativism, unlike ethnocentrism, is the assumption  that cultures can only be understood relative to one another, and that a particular behavior can only be understood within a cultural context. 

A cultural generalization, unlike a stereotype, is a categorization of the predominant tendencies in a cultural group; in other words, the tendency of the majority of people to hold certain values and beliefs and engage in certain pattern of behavior. This can be a useful way of managing information and generally anticipating how people will think and behave. However, the people you meet in a particular culture may not fit the generalizations you have about the culture, or they may fit some but not others. To avoid stereotyping, it is necessary to test your generalizations against the actual behavior and values of those you are encountering in the culture. 

A great deal more about these concepts will be discussed in Sections 1.3 and 1.4, but they are introduced here because understanding the nature of culture is a fundamental intellectual building block in preparing for a cross-cultural experience. How successful you will be overseas depends on your ability to transcend the mind-set of the culture(s) in which you have spent much of your life and, through "culture learning" techniques, figure out how to interact appropriately within a new cultural environment.