I have to start out on this reaffirming my status as a practitioner: all of this comes out of my observations working with online community, non-digital community, and trying to understand the social dynamics I saw unfolding, both in traditional and newer, emergent, contexts.
So this all starts with the notion that we're social creatures, and further, that we've evolved to be social creatures, that some of our success as a species rests on our ability to work together to accomplish mutually satisfying goals.
There are a
number of ideas that fall out of this, that explain, or connect, to very
One broad area is a set of behavior I've taken to calling "collaborative accomplishment": basically, an evolved fitness for and enjoyment of small team activities. We love working together to get stuff done (even if it's simply beating the other team) - in part our success at group activities is driven by our enjoyment of them (no coincidence here). More on this another time, it's a huge and, I think, very exciting area.
But I first wanted to define how I'm seeing culture these days... basically, I see culture as a body of knowledge and practice designed to foster the success of the individual and the group they belong to (or possibly the other way around). I see it as the collection of the more-or-less integrated systems a group creates, that act as both the repositories of "best practices", but also as the social structures that have been found to be most effective. I mean, on some level, it's reallly simple... culture as the operating software of a given group, as it were, ideally optimizing our success in any arena. Economics, religion, crafts, parenting, etc etc., all, I feel, have deep roots in areas of functionality that we learn from those who've gone before us... or something like that. They're collaborative assessments of how to succeed in various arenas, and, in this view, a culture's institutions and established organizational structures are an aspect of this. We learn from, or adopt our culture to have the right expectations of those around us, to understand how "we" organize, and to learn the best methods we've come up with for dealing with this tricky stuff called life.
But it's also a bit more complex than that... in that these are dynamic systems, and are generally implemented as some sort of adjunct to personal success. Ie., my success in my culture can strongly rest on how I'm percieved as a leader (or whatever role I pursue) in that culture... and my success in turn informs the next generation of cultural norms. But note, there's a discontinuity here: my success can have very little to do with my culture's success, indeed, I can be quite detrimental in the long run, to those who follow me. No shortage of examples where charismatic leadership created such flawed social institutions that the ultimate result was catastrophic to those in the culture. Part of what constitutes success is social, but personal success can also have little to do with long-term social merits. Arguably our fashion industry reflects this, for example, playing on a sense of cultural progression with little inherent material benefit other than a display of adeptness at manipulating the trendy icons. Now, the ability to surf the zeitgeist is certainly a survival trait, though I think clearly the more ostentatious examples seem rather wasteful.
It's hard for me to write coherently about this stuff, it ranges so far... basically, I'm seeing culture as a dynamic system for informing group members of successful memes, and further, as a system for the development and propagation of these memes, all overlapping the individual's perception and execution of personal and social success. Thrown in the mix are the sense it which culture, and the adoption and adherence to cultural norms, can be a process of affinity and organizational recognition and mutual agreement (if we're "in the church" and you're a priest, we both have a sense of the broad outlines of the expected relationship between us). Again, some degree of exprimentation goes on here, more easily online, which is part of the revolution happening in our ... well, culture, due to online interactions. And if the experimentations are successful, the practioners may have increased status, improved confidence, better, new, interaction skills, a new social role, and/or enhanced expectations from those around... and the culture may have a new meme to discuss, evaluate, and possilby adopt (rinse, repeat).
Note too, all of this happens in a context of some degree of flexibility: what makes culture seem so inflexible is the fanatical adherence we employ with each other to the chosen cultural norms. But, in the right supportive context, new norms can fairly easily and quickly be adopted.
One other note on this topic... which should, I know, be greatly expanded, but it's taken me weeks to get this far: that cultural contexts are hugely interconnected... ie., the elements of culture, the areas of study (religion, economics, family relationships) are all interwoven to the extent that trying to explore a single aspect might be useful in a theoretical sense, but will suffer without consideration of other cultural aspects. Ie., looking at fashion suffers without an understanding of wealth, the impact on fashion of trendsetters, the positions of trendsetters in a culture (ie., Madonna is not a religious figure, though she comments on religion by her adoption of certain symbols)... etc. The influence of a cultural element can extend across the breadth of a culture, influencing the attitudes of members about many other aspects of the culture, including seemingly "unrelated" ones.
Questions, comments most welcome!