10 Cultural Universals: Politics

Politics in Culture

Democracy, communism, socialism, totalitarianism.

The politics of a nation shape its values and are shaped by them.

The cycle is continuous and feeds itself: culture feeds politics, and politics feed culture. This cycle is only disrupted by some huge collapsing event.

What do I mean by “collapsing event”?

I’ll give you an example.

Germany & WWII

One obvious example of this is WWII.

When Hitler and the Nazis gained control, so did their political values: anti-semitism, the concept of an Aryan “master race,” and the formation of a “New Order.”

“There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it…there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew.”

Adolf Hitler, Munich (April 12, 1922)

This was the first of the collapsing events: the Nazi takeover.

In 1945, another collapsing event would occur: their defeat.

And 44 years later, in 1989, would occur another collapsing event in Germany – this one almost a literal one – the fall of the Berlin wall, which separated East Germany from West Germany.

It was this collapsing event that eventually led to the Germany we know today: a federal parliamentary republic, an influential leader in Europe and the world, and the fourth largest economy.

This example demonstrates that politics can momentarily distort a culture’s values, can lead to evil acts. But, ultimately, if the majority’s values are good and strong, politics cannot destroy the true nature of a culture.

As long as that majority does not remain silent.

Collapsing Event

You can probably determine from the above example what a collapsing event is.

It’s a moment in history that almost entirely collapses the status quo, keeps the good or the bad (depending upon the values of the dominant group), attempts to eliminate the “other,” and starts building the status quo again from the ground, up, under newly installed values.

This is politics in culture.

Oftentimes, a collapsing event occurs through war and violence. In fact, one might look at politics as a war for cultural values.

Political Movements

A few more examples of collapsing events across history:

  • American Civil War – Abraham Lincoln led the North in defeating the confederates to preserve the union and abolish slavery.
  • Cultural Revolution – Chairman Mao Zedong’s attempt to preserve Communist ideology by destroying some of China’s capitalist past and tradition and silencing (and often publicly humiliating) community intellectuals and thought leaders.
  • Execution of the Romanov Family – The Bolsheviks murdered the family members of the last living tsar dynasty to end imperialism in Russia.

The list is endless, and the bodycount is often devastating. These events create a turning point in history, where the established values are disrupted or altered, altogether.

And as we all know, values are the fundamental roots of culture. They define us.

Next week, we’ll talk about how politics, values, and culture collide in North Korea.

10 Cultural Universals: Education

What role do educators play in society?

Teaching reading, writing, arithmetic. Sure.

But they teach our children and young adults other things too.

In many ways, educators are charged with teaching our youth about the basic tenets of our culture.

Socialization

We talked a lot about primary socialization in earlier blog posts.

According to sociologyguide, education has both tangible and intangible results. Specific skills are learned, but so is knowledge, judgement and wisdom.

“Education has as one of its fundamental goals the imparting of culture from generation to generation. Culture is a growing whole. There can be no break in the continuity of culture.” – sociologyguide

Education begins at home and continues through schooling. It is here and there that a culture’s heritage is passed on through social institutions, and it’s transmitted this was through each and every society, making it one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Education is delivered through many forms:

  • Curriculum
  • Relationships (teacher-student, etc.)
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Communication of values and skills – i.e., discipline, teamwork, cooperation, respect, duty, etc.

These taught skills, both tangible and intangible, are designed to enable children to understand their culture and to help them integrate into the world.

Cultural Education Clash

Different cultures see the world differently. This isn’t in error. It’s how culture is perpetuated.

Matthew Lynch, Ed.D., talks about that in his article, “Examining the Impact of Culture on Academic Performance.” He writes:

“A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information.”

Lynch describes Richard Nisbett’s studies on the difference between Eastern and Western thought.

In The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, Nisbett found that the Chinese and Japanese view the world in a holistic way, seeing objects with respect to their relationship with other objects, while Americans view the world in distinct parts or classes of objects, defined by rules.

In this way, learning, in and of itself, also differs across cultures. There are a number of theories as to why and how, some of which are discussed in Lynch’s article. But the one we’ll outline here is the cultural difference theory.

The Cultural Difference Theory

This theory suggests that children growing up in different cultures likely learn in different ways.

You might take our example from Primary Socialization V: Conflict Resolution.

The conflict between Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann illustrates that learning and education in some areas of the world is a communal effort, while in other areas, study is independently geared and self-driven.

This is why, when working in a cross-cultural environment, one must always be aware of different traditions of learning and approaches to education.

If you’re aware of how individuals in a culture have been taught to learn, you will be better able to teach; to work with and/or manage them successfully.

10 Cultural Universals: Economy

When the economist, Adam Smith, wrote in his 1776 book, Wealth of the Nations, that each of us contributes to a self-regulating system by pursuing our own personal interests, his idea of “personal interests” was not exclusively financial or material.

He understood that cultural values were involved in economics.  

German social scientist, Max Weber, defined this more clearly during the early 20th century. He examined how certain cultural values influenced economic output.

One example he gave was the Protestant culture.

Reformation teachings in the religion called for congregants to gain wealth, and in doing so, the Protestant work ethic and teachings produced a stronger economy than did, for instance, the Catholic counterpart.

At that point in time, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain – all Catholic countries – had weaker economies than Great Britain and Germany – countries with a larger Protestant population.

Culture Impacts Economy

The plain fact is some economies fail while others succeed. And the success or failure of an economy is largely dependent on culture.

For any given culture to prosper, economists look at a checklist of necessities for economic development. These include:

  • Good governance
  • Stable political system
  • Straightforward laws, enforced honorably
  • Efficient and uncorrupt government officials
  • Available land for businesses
  • Less bureaucracy when it comes to applying for business permits
  • Foreign investment

For an economy to develop fruitfully, these requirements must be fulfilled.

Values, Tastes & Desires

As Francis X. Hezel, SJ, writes in his article, “The Role of Culture in Economic Development”:

“Modern technology alone will never be able to turn around an economy and to boost the standard of living among a population. The development of a mindset, with accompanying values and habits, is a big part of the equation.”

The study of cultural economics examines all this.

Cultural economics differs from traditional economics in the examination of how and why individuals make decisions.

Traditional economics sees decision-making as producing explicit and implicit consequences.

Cultural economics sees decision-making as something arrived at through trajectories involving regularities accrued over the years that direct the individual in decision-making.

Our tastes, our desires are informed by our culture. This begins during primary socialization and continues to be enhanced by the environment we grow in. We internalize these tastes and desires and they inform our future wants.

Individuals and societies have culture-driven wants, needs, desires, and values, all of which drive the economy and the culture, thereby producing economic evolution – or stagnation.

Learn more about the 10 Cultural Universals.

10 Cultural Universals: Rituals

Bhutan is known as the happiest country on Earth.

And yet, the peaceful Buddhist nation, sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas, is preoccupied with death.

People of Bhutanese culture think about death five times a day. And, surprisingly, this doesn’t provoke negativity or darkness; it provokes happiness and joy.

The Bhutanese understand that death and life walk hand-in-hand. And their quasi-celebration of death is best represented in Bhutanese rituals.

Rituals, Values, Beliefs

Rituals, tied in with values and beliefs, are part of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Rituals are shared events, often traditional, that are distinctive to a given group or community.

As UNESCO puts it:

“They are significant because they reaffirm the identity of those who practice them as a group or a society and, whether performed in public or private, are closely linked to important events…to a community’s worldview and perception of its own history and memory.”

How do Bhutanese rituals demonstrate their perception of death?

Death Ritual

Death rituals in Bhutan are so enriching, because Buddhists believe not in death, but in reincarnation. Therefore, the focus is on the rebirth of the soul into a new life; not on the death and ultimate termination of the departed’s life here on Earth.

According to Eric Weiner’s BBC article, “Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness”:

“Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals.”

The rituals during this 49-day period are performed to help ensure that the departed soul improves its state in rebirth. Although praying happens every day of these 49 days, the more elaborate rituals occur on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th after the departed’s passing.

Rituals include 108 prayer flags being erected in the deceased’s honor. The local astrologer is also asked for their recommendation on a favorable cremation day prior to the 7th day ritual.

The gewa, or “feast of giving,” occurs on the 21st day. One person from each household in the village attends the feast.

In a wonderful article, written by Kunzang Choden, Choden explains how Buddhist beliefs inform these rituals:

“Buddhists believe that a person’s consciousness has to be separated from the dead body. This is done by a religious practitioner through a powerful ritual: phowa. All the rituals and rites that follow are not so much for the body, but for the consciousness, which may hover around the family because of attachments.”

These acts are also a sort of a grief cleanse for the living, with one man calling the 49-day process “better than any antidepressant.”

And the death rituals do not end at the 49th day. Every year for three years following a death, prayer flags are erected in the departed’s honor, with rice, alcohol, and other items offered up by family, friends, and other attendees.

This is how values, beliefs, and rituals can blend into a culturally-rich experience that caters to the soul.

10 Cultural Universals: Beliefs

Imagine you’re in the Amazonian jungle.

You’re with a tour group, camera in hand, thrilled to spot a colorful exotic bird or a dragon in antiquity. You’ve got your finger on your camera’s shutter button as if it were the pulse of culture.

And that’s when you see culture in all its natural glory:

A woman standing, alone, extracting the fruit of nuts from a palm tree, cracking them open with ease.

When she turns, she is shocked to see a tourist group descending upon her. You and the crowd surround her, not asking for permission to take her photograph. Simply click-click-clicking away, capturing culture on camera.

The woman drops the nut on the jungle floor and appears to be having a panic attack. In complete shock, she cannot breathe, and she grows hysterical. She works herself up into such a state that she has to be taken to the hospital.

The episode leaves you and your fellow tourists wondering, “What frightened her so?”

Range of Beliefs

Beliefs are often interconnected with values and rituals, which is why all three are grouped together in the 10 Cultural Universals.

Cultural beliefs range from seemingly trivial superstitions to more significant and impactful convictions.

Let’s take, for instance, the Chinese belief that the number, 4, is bad luck. This superstitious belief is rooted in the language of Mandarin – “4” (, SÌ) sounds like “death” (, sǐ) in Chinese.

This is why you won’t find a 4th floor button on a Chinese elevator. A superstition, seemingly trivial to others, but it does affect building construction throughout China.

More impactful beliefs – such as beliefs about gender roles, healthcare, education, etc. – are more involved.

For instance, religious faith and belief sometimes holds unexplainable healing powers, which the believers site as miracles. In some cases, the health of patients who are provided a placebo improves.

What heals them? Is it belief? The Holy Spirit?

As Eric Vance writes in Unlocking the Healing Power of You:

“Scientists have known about the placebo effect for decades and have used it as a control in drug trials. Now they are seeing placebos as a window into the neurochemical mechanisms that connect the mind with the body, belief with experience.”

Beliefs can also have far-reaching consequences, if ill-informed.

For instance, sometimes cultural beliefs interfere with health-seeking behavior.

According to an article published in the African Journal of Disability:

“In a study on the abuse of disabled children in Ghana, the cultural belief that disabled children were cursed, led to such severe stigmatization that children were often hidden away by their parents, or left at a river to die.”

Cultural beliefs are often innocuous, but they can sometimes be harmful. As they were in the case of the Amazonian woman.

All-Powerful Beliefs

The scenario detailed in the intro actually happened to Michael J. Balick, PhD, Director of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden when he visited Brazil.

In his own words, Dr. Balick explained what had frightened her so:

“She was convinced that the people had stolen her spirit. And it was the belief, not the clicking cameras, that caused the physical reaction.”

Our beliefs are so deep-seated that just such an ambush can make us physically ill.

This is one reason why understanding another’s cultural beliefs will make you more sensitive to how they walk through the world. You can then apply this understanding to alter behaviors that, in another culture, might be considered harmful.

10 Cultural Universals: You Are What You Eat, How Values Become Culture

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what we value is who we are.

We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab.

They define our culture, and they direct our social norms.

This grouping of the 10 Cultural Universals also includes beliefs and rituals, which tie in with values in ways we’ll discuss in upcoming posts.

You Are What You Eat

What we are fed as children – in the forms of both formal and informal education – is, more often than not, what we accept and value as adults.

As Kilroy J. Oldster wrote in Dead Toad Scrolls:

“A great deal of the global stimuli that we view comes to us without major effort. Daily a person scans and screens a wide barrage of solicited and unsolicited material. What information a society pays attention to creates the standards and principles governing citizens’ life. A nation’s discourse translates its economic, social, and cultural values to impressionable children.” 

Our national discourse, what we project and adulate as a society, the meaning and importance we place on certain beliefs, ideals, and attitudes – these are the things our children consume.

We are what we eat. Our children will become what we feed them.

Education vs. Ignorance

“The right to a quality education is, I believe, the perfect path to bridge the gap between different cultures and to reconcile various civilizations…Ignorance is by far the biggest danger and threat to humankind.” – Moza bint Nasser

If we feed children quality food, in the form of education, they will value knowledge, critical thinking, and the ethics and moral teachings therein.

If we feed them garbage, in the form of false narratives, baseless “facts”, and unwarranted prejudice, they will value conspiracies, groupthink, and stereotypes.

A culture creates its own values and also consumes them.

So, remember, whatever values you cultivate within your culture should be cultivated with care. Values are meant to keep society healthy. They’re meant to show what integrity means to you as a people and to show others what you stand for.

What We Eat

Like social norms, the beliefs and rituals of your culture are what actualize our underlying values.

Beliefs are what we eat; rituals are how we eat.

Rituals, especially, are values in action.

We’ll talk about both in the coming weeks.

10 Cultural Universals: The Yurt, A Nomadic Home

Last week, in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how shelters are illustrations of culture.

A shelter’s attributes inform you about the area’s climate, the structural materials inform you about the type of resources available in the region, the layout informs you about the social elements of the culture, and the home’s architecture and design inform you about the culture’s aesthetic sensibilities.

To put it simply, structures are incredibly informative in the study of culture.

In today’s post, we’ll take a virtual walk-through of one of these shelters and learn a little about the culture within.

Design

The Yurt is a circular home in Central Asia, emblematic of nomadic Mongolian tribes.

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In the 13th century book Travels in the Eastern Countries, Guillaume de Rubrouck wrote of the yurt:

“They [the nomads] put their houses on wheels, and woven rods are used as walls for their homes. The walls are enclosed on the top forming the roof of the house. They are covered with white felt and it is often coated with lemon or bone powder to make it sparkle.”

Rubrouck goes on to say that the black felt opening in the rooftop is designed elaborately with themed illustrations.

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A felt wall hanging at the home’s entrance is also a norm. These wall hangings are usually colorfully artistic renderings of birds and other animals, trees, and vines, revealing the importance of nature to the Mongolian nomadic tribes.

Materials

As forever-travelers, nomads need a home that can spring up out of transportable materials, which the yurt can do, although it’s also used as a more permanent structure.

The wooden frame of a yurt is collapsable and is often draped in animal skins or wool felt, which keeps the cool in during summer and the heat during winter. The wool felt is obtained from sheep often shepherded by the nomadic pastoralists, while the timber to form the structure cannot be found on the steppes, which don’t have trees, and must be sourced through trade in the nearby valleys.

Modern yurts also have a double layer of canvas to protect from the elements.

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The structure includes three to five orange mesh walls, depending on the size of the yurt. The sloped roof with a hole in the center is a primary feature, allowing for a chimney when cooking or heating the home.

The yurt also has a wooden floor, covered by carpets, again for insulation.

Learn

As you virtually walk through the yurt and learn of its build and design, what do you learn about the nomadic Mongolian peoples who inhabit these structures?

Tell me in the comment section.

10 Cultural Universals: Hearts & Hearths, How Shelters Tell Stories of Culture

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Yurt, adobe, Siheyuan, izba, stilt, igloo, turf.

Some of these housing types, you may recognize; others, you may not. But each of them illustrate character traits of a culture…that is, if you’re willing to look closely.

Along with food, clothing, and transport, shelter is a basic cultural element in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

The homes we choose to live in tell a story of who we are. They are historical artifacts that provide archeologists a look into the past, and they are modern snapshots that inform others about who we are and what we deem most important in life.

Whether the focal point of a home is the kitchen, a social room, or even a temple built within, our hearts are revealed by our hearths.

So let’s take a look at both.

Hearts & Hearths

What can a shelter tell us about the culture and about life in a region?

Here are some things to consider when discussing the cultural elements of shelters:

  • Climate – The climate of the region determines the needs of the home. Stilt houses in Cambodia, for example, to avoid flooding, or thick insulation in locations with hard, cold winters.
  • Structural materials – Structural materials for homes are best sourced locally. You’re more likely to find bamboo used in construction in Asian countries than in the West, or adobe clay in the desert than in the arctic.blog43-6
  • Social elements – Whether the residence is built around a courtyard, likethe Siheyuan homes of China, or is set up with individual rooms for more independent and private living or a single room for more commune-style living,  the social elements of each culture determine a home’s layout and design.
  • Aesthetic – From the vaulted ceilings of Italian homes to the bamboo roofs of Bali, from the ornately designed doors of Icelandic turf houses to the homey thatched cottages of England, the aesthetic and architecture of a home is obviously the most eye-catching and expressive element of the culture. Aesthetics tell us what the culture finds beautiful and most comfortable.

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In essence – and in reality – home is where the heart is. Each form of shelter is a monument to the people. This is why homes around the world inform our understanding the people who inhabit them and the culture they engender.

10 Cultural Universals: Tuktuks, Gondolas, & Travel

From tuktuks in Thailand to gondolas in Venice, transportation takes on unique forms across the world. And these unique forms epitomize local culture.

Part two of transportation in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals will outline two compelling forms of transport and how they influence local culture.

The TukTuk

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Versions of a tuktuk, also known as an auto-rickshaw, can be found everywhere in the world, from South America to Asia. But tuktuks are particularly emblematic of Thailand.

Though they originated in Japan, they were embraced by Thailand, where they were imported during the 1930s. Eventually, the Thais took over production and Thai-made tuk-tuks were born.

Bangkok is packed with the three-wheeled open-air motorcycles. The smaller ride can wheel in and out of narrow alleyways and amongst all the traffic, where a traditional four-wheeled cab might get squeezed.

While these taxis should logically be the cheaper option, tuktuk drivers know what they’re doing.

As Greg Rodgers of tripsavvy put it, “The road-hardened drivers are experts at somehow convincing travelers to pay more than they normally would for a comfortable, air-conditioned taxi to go the same distance.”

This is the culture of Bangkok. An overabundance of colorful tuktuks and their tuktuk drivers, trying to make a buck off of fresh-off-the-boat types.

Haggling is part of the game, part of the culture. But, as Rodgers notes, unless you know what you’re doing, a traditional metered cab is probably a cheaper and more comfortable option.

The Gondola

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Certain iconic forms of transport spring to mind when thinking of a specific place or culture. The gondola is one of them.

Navigating the city’s historic canals, the gondola – and the singing gondoliers who guide them – is emblematic of Venetian culture. 

Dating back to 1094, the gondola’s structure was specifically designed to navigate the shallows of the Venetian lagoon. By 1562, gondola culture had evolved and been so embraced that the boats were excessively ornamented, so much so that legal restrictions were placed on their decoration. Thereafter, they became uniformly black and were allowed only three types of flourishes – a prow, a curly tail, or a pair of seahorses and a multi-pronged ferro.

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In the early years, gondolas were often shared among four people – three gondoliers and a fourth man who remained onshore to book the gondola for public transport.

Nowadays, gondolas are almost exclusively a tourist attraction – one that can bring in around $150,000 annually for your average gondolier.

That’s not without putting in the work. The profession is now controlled by a guild, where training and a comprehensive exam is required. Not only must gondoliers be incredible oarsmen, they must also have adequate foreign language skills, and intimate knowledge of Venetian landmarks and history.

Needless to say, this form of transport – like unique forms in many other places in the world – has become a cornerstone of the city’s culture.

When you think gondola, you think Venice.

When you think tuktuk, you think Bangkok.

When you think bicycle, you think Amsterdam.

This is how culturally significant transportation can be.

10 Cultural Universals: Transportation Culture & Social Movements

Amsterdam is a bicycler’s paradise.

Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Bali.

Knowing your way around the subway or the Tube is essential in NYC or London, respectively.

People all across the world have a common need: to get from here to there.

Whether on foot, by bus, or aboard a gondola, the methods of travel in every nation or region are unique and practical to the culture born there.

Last week, we discussed traditional clothing and how clothing culture evolves with the times.

This week, we’ll take a look at transport and its evolution, a topic which falls under the same umbrella of basics – along with food, clothing, and shelter – as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

Practicality and Culture

Each culture has its own public and preferred methods of transport. These methods vary across regions, based largely upon two things:

1) Practicality – the most functional mode of transport, considering the landscape and infrastructure of the area

2) Social norms & values – the social norms and values that drive these transport choices

The favored method of transport is often chosen due to the type of transport culture that’s cultivated in any given region. It’s also chosen based upon practicality (which usually influences why society cultivates that type of transport culture, in the first place).

The Bicycling Capital

Let’s take Amsterdam, for example.

‘Bike Street: Cars are Guests’

Amsterdam is often called “the bicycling capital of the world,” and this is largely due to a social movement that happened in the ‘70s.

While prior to WWII, bicycling was already the predominant form of transportation across the Netherlands, car ownership exploded in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was soon so popular that roads were congested, and bicyclists were literally shunted to the side.

With more motor vehicles zipping around, the number of road fatalities sky-rocketed. 3,000 people – including 450 children – were killed by drivers in 1971.

‘Stop the Child Murder’ Social Movement

This is when a social movement formed, called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder). The movement’s name was derived from journalist Vic Langenhoff’s article of the same title, which he’d written after his own child had been killed on the road.

The Middle East oil crisis of 1973 also informed the move toward reinstating bicycling as the primary form of transport. As the Dutch’s reliability on foreign oil was shaken, the motor vehicle seemed less sustainable than previously thought.

Thus, the Dutch government renewed their investment in bicycling infrastructure – with more cycling paths, smoother biking surfaces, parking facilities, bike-sharing programs, and clear signage and lights.

Biking is now a daily part of most Dutch people’s daily lives, which means that children grow up with this cycle-centric primary socialization. This makes for a homegrown biking culture, ever popular in a world promoting greener transport options.

In this way, Amsterdam’s traditional and revitalized biking culture is ahead of the pack, and forward-thinking “smart city” cultures are following in their bike tracks (see: Barcelona, Mexico City).

Next week, we’ll discuss transport culture further.