Pedagogica –
Where has Culture/culture gone?


In years gone by it became common to distinguish culture with a capital "C" from culture with a small "c". This distinction was well defined by Milton Bennett, a score of years ago in his book Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication. Essentially it separated the culture sought by the "culture vulture" in the theater, art gallery, literature and poetic recitation, from the examination of dynamics of Culture, seen as an objective exploration of the systems, political, social, linguistic, etc., which define a human entity. These studies created the academic intercultural curriculum and became the bread-and-butter of intercultural training.

I don't intend to argue about majuscules and minuscules here. Rather the task is to point out how research and thinking have progressed from interpretive approaches, trying to make our own sense out of how others differ and what we should do about it, to an open-eyed focus on language and artifacts, preoccupation with art, architecture, everyday objects and images as clues to what is going on in a globalizing world. Their stories, their creation and their uses are now seen as cultural realizations that give life and meaning, that go beyond many of the abstract "objective" definitions and dimensions that have been generated, too often in an attempt to placate the positivistic dogmas of "scientific" research and the expectations of the marketplace.

Culture has often been defined as the discourse of the group of humans seeking to fulfill their needs given the environment in which they find themselves. Objective Culture tended to define this in terms of attitudes, values, and behaviors. These abstract categories enabled a discussion of the topic, which for interculturalists, became a discourse of their own construction. Very little has been said about the culture of interculturalists – I've only heard one presentation on this topic in my 3 decades as a member of SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research). The shoemaker's children go unshod.

A plethora of theories and models of objective Culture have been created, applied, branded and rebranded as products in order to assist people to communicate and collaborate with each other, a laudable objective. It is not uncommon today, however, to see critiques of these models as inadequate, or even worse, as destructive, in the sense that they tend to create simplistic metaphors and breed stereotypical attitudes. Rather than being appreciated as partial understandings, they become one-size-fits-all obstacles to be surmounted on the way to cultural competence, and sometimes straw men for Besserwisserei. The problem is not what they include but what they exclude that limits their functionality at the same time as it begs for deeper insight and broader perspectives. Again, multiple models are not per se bad, but they too easily increase the layers of abstraction, which can obfuscate rather than allow us to enjoy and engage the messiness of reality.

So, the current question is how do we get beneath the abstractions. Some sociologists have not been reluctant to examine the culture of social disciplines, pointing out the directions these studies have been taking, ever more in the direction of concretizing cultural phenomena. Doris Bachmann-Medick has done a good job of distinguishing the "turns", the shifts in orientation in the study of culture. We have been passing through what she calls a "linguistic turn" where cultural analysis focuses on language, text, and its social constructions. Where are we going? Certainly, further in the direction of stories, theater, artifacts, and images. We live in a material world which is the setting of our experiences and the root of our self-interpretation, both personal and historical.

All this is certainly both aided and confused by the intensification of global communication in the digital age. I am personally fascinated by what some call the "iconic" turn, as I watch video and images crowd out words on Internet pages. I am impressed by those who address urban architecture in a proactive way that both preserves and enhances the culture of the inhabitants and users of cityscapes.

Unfortunately, we are wedded to abstraction in a failing marriage. We can't afford a divorce as separation would not be good for our offspring (our reputation, our products and productivity, our brand and our bread). So, we let ourselves be seduced by the sexiness of a tangible mister or a mistress. We rent a room in our minds to think the unthinkable, to disrobe, to look at and embrace the obscene, juicy details of real life and the bigger landscape they occur in, which gives the lie to our long-standing marital accommodation.

 

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