Friday, October 19, 2007

Australia's Confusion with Culture

One thing I have noticed in discussion in Australia across a broad spectrum of issues is the degree of confusion that appears to exist about the meaning of the word "culture". I thought that I would make a brief comment as much to clarify my own thinking as anything else.

When I first did prehistory we were taught simply that culture was nurture, not nature. In other words, all the things that we learned to do. Defined in this way, culture is a very broad concept. Because prehistory is concerned with physical remains - digging through the rubbish dumps of the human past as one archaeologist put it - culture, the differences between cultures, the patterns of cultural change are all linked to material evidence of what we do, how we do it.

This broad meaning of culture exists, too, in management theory. Organisational culture is often defined simply as the way we do things round here.

In teaching groups and teams as part of Frontline Management Training I tried to make the point that every group developed its own culture. In formal curriculum terms this lead to the point that a team was a directed group. However, I also wanted to get across a point that the process of cultural creation and maintenance was a natural part of any group or team all the way up to the huge modern organisation. To be really effective, you have to know how to work the culture.

This type of thinking came through in my role as a change agent, a role inextricably linked with cultural change. Most new brooms in fact fail. Those who are most effective link their approach to the existing history and culture of the organisation, treating this not just as an impediment but also as an aid.

Anybody who has studied culture or who has been involved with it in a practical sense soon learns a few things.

The first is that most human beings are quite capable of combining multiple cultures and cultural allegiancies within themselves. These may even conflict, a conflict that can be ignored until something brings it into prominence.

The second thing is that we all select groups and cultures that we are comfortable with unless events force otherwise.

One of the readings in today's NSW Higher School Certificate English paper was an excerpt from Geraldine Brooks. Reporting on her experiences of living in a small village in Virginia, she said in part:

You live differently in a small place. I had been a city person all my life: my homes had been in the dense urban tangles of Sydney, New York, Cairo and London. Though each of those cities is very different, I was much the same in all of them. People say cities breed acceptance of diversity, but I didn't learn that lesson there. It took a village to teach me tolerance and a measure of tact.

My wife, a Sydney Eastern Suburbs girl, found the same thing when she first moved to Armidale. It was not that Armidale was narrow, just that she had to mix with people with very different views. Certainly I have been forced to exercise tolerance since I returned the favour by moving to Sydney.

Because we select groups that we are comfortable with, it becomes very easy to forget or fail to recognise that the cultural attributes you support may not be shared by others. This was one of the messages I was trying to get across in my post comparing the Sydney and New England electorates.

The third thing is that cultures change all the time under the influence of events. Yes, there are continuities, I will discuss this in a moment, but there is also change. Changes that strengthen the group are absorbed relatively easily. Changes that affect attitudes, values, world views, happen much more slowly. When the pace of change becomes a threat, as happened in Australia during the first half of the nineties, you get a reaction.

This brings me to my last point, the longevity of certain cultural traits.

A US sociological study I read many years ago, I do not remember the reference, compared two suburbs in a US city. One was highly functional, the other highly disfunctional, yet both had begun in an apparently similar way. The study's conclusion was that the difference went back to differences in the establishment process, differences whose influences continued.

Now link all this to the discussion on our relations with Australia's indigenous peoples.

There is no doubt that traditional life was highly sophisticated and organised. Because there appears to be some doubt about this in some peoples' minds, I have started a post on the New England blog discussing Aboriginal economic life in New England at the time of European intrusion.

That life was not static in cultural terms, now was it uniform across the country. So when, as appears often to be the case, people start talking about traditional "Aboriginal" culture I want to know what they mean.

The arrival of the Europeans had a dramatic and adverse effect on traditional Aboriginal life, an effect that varied over time and across the country. Again, I do not think that there can be any argument about this. It is simply a statement of fact.

The first problem that I do have with some of the discussion is that it appears to suggest that the indigenous cultures vanished. They did not, they simply changed.

Now it may be, I think that it is, that the changes meant that traditional life was no longer possible. However, elements of that life certainly continued, now joined by new elements. This links to my point about the continuity of culture.

I feel that this process of change has, at least to my mind, been poorly charted. I need to know more. But I can surmise some things.

To begin with, the kinship, exchange and cooperative characteristics of traditional life carried over. This has many advantages, but it also has problems.

In 1970 I remember studying development economics for my masters in economics at the Australian National University. We looked at Fiji. A key point was the way in which the kinship and mutual obligation systems created fundamental problems for the development of indigenous Fijians. This is true for Australia's indigenous people.

Now here I would make two points.

First, cultures have to change or pay a price. That price is decline and ultimate extinction.

The second is the need for objective observation. Without this, none of us know what we are dealing with.

One of my personal heroes is Raymond Firth. One of that brilliant group of New Zealand intellectuals that made such a contribution to western thought, Firth was arguably the outstanding social anthropologist of the 20th century.

One of his key points as I understand them was the need for objective observation to understand and record. Being objective in observation does not mean being objective in a personal sense. It means simply that you try to prevent your own biases intervening in your professional analysis.

I won't go on at this point, except to note that I do try to follow what I see as Firth's approach on indigenous issues. And in this context I need a lot more information.

Postscript - Saturday Morning 20 October

My word, this post has already generated some useful comments. My especial thanks to Lexcen for pointing me in the direction of the Freeman/Mead controversy. I had forgotten this, and I found the reminder intensely interesting for a number of reasons.

By way of background to readers who may not be aware of this, Margaret Mead became perhaps the most famous anthropologist of the twentieth century because of her writings on sexuality among young women in Samoa. Dr Derek Freeman later challenged her conclusions, igniting a global controversy that spread well beyond the discipline of anthropology itself. Nothing like sex to spark interest!

Without debating the rights or wrongs of the case, the controversy centred on the the relations in anthropology between the observer and the observed in interpreting cultural matters, and hence bears directly upon the point I was making in this post.

Did Mead's informants lie to her? Did she allow her own perceptions and values to affect not just the questions she asked, but the way in which she interpreted the answers? And, in any case, how does the very presence of the anthropologist distort cultural patterns?

Conversely, to what degree were Dr Freeman's observations affected by his own close relations with Samoans now aware of Mead's writings? Did the adoption of Christianity itself lead to another distortion?

These questions are all relevant in an Australian context. As I outlined in a post on the Australian anthropologist Malcolm Calley, Australian anthropologists have been very important in raising interest in indigenous issues when the matter was still being largely ignored by other professions, including historians.

I have another interest, too, the New Zealand connection.

In a short series of posts on the History of Australian and New Zealand Thought blog (first post here) I discussed the remarkable story of some of the early New Zealand economists.

This extends to anthropology, for the two were linked. Here I have already talked about Raymond Firth. Just as in economics there was a people chain that created a remarkable body of work for such a small country, so there was in anthropology.

My thanks to all my current contributors for making my early Saturday morning so very interesting.


ninglun said...

Jim, your approach does lead to much extremely valuable information and also to information being attended to which might otherwise be overlooked. As a kind of side issue, Raymond Firth and Malinowski both heavily influenced Professor M A K Halliday (in my view a more significant linguist than Chomsky) formerly of Sydney University. Halliday's linguistics, in turn, underpinned the TESOL program at UTS, which I did, and ESL teaching generally. It also underpins much of the approach in the current NSW Primary Schools English syllabus.

On the other hand, you know that I am pomo enough to question "objectivity". I am not a radical in this regard, at least I don't think I am. I am actually comfortable with Richard Evans on historiography, which some would say makes me a conservative really. In English Studies, especially literary studies, objectivity is, in my expeience, even more unattainable. There are objective facts one might point to about a text of course, and limits to what is likely in interpretation -- that "The Man from Snowy River" is about elephants, for example, seems unlikely; but there is also a real sense in which the meaning of a literary text really is endlessly deferred.

Legal Eagle said...

Interesting post. I have always been a city gal myself, but there is a very different culture in Melbourne to Sydney. And I'm sure there's a different culture in all of the other areas too.

You are spot on: there is no uniform indigenous culture; rather there are many different traditions and cultures. That's one of the reasons why there could be no effective resistance to colonial expansion - because each group was so different and spoke different languages, so that there was no chance of unifying against the invader.

On a more jocular note: you have been tagged for the animal meme.

Legal Eagle said...

Oh btw, Neil I agree, there are limits on interpretation. I tell my students, "You can argue anything...within reason". That is, they can argue that the law should be one way or the other, I don't long as they justify that properly. One can't say the law for murder should be a bowl of goldfish or being smeared with peanut butter.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, thanks for the compliment. and for pointing to the interesting linkage between Raymond Firth and Professor Halliday.

I find the question of objectivity interesting. In history, for example, I have tried to make a distinction, for example, between the selection of the question to be studied and the approach. Interests and values are intrinsic to the first, whereas the second should meet certain academic canons.

Even in the second there are obvious problems. For example, how far do you follow up a particular question? Perhaps not as deeply as you should if you don't like the emerging answer! Then, too, good writing is good not just because of its clarity, but in the way that it brings something alive. Can good writing itself be objective?

To me, English is an interesting case study because the subject combines three very different things in sometimes uneasy balance.

To begin with, it is a technical subject, teaching people how to write and to interpret writing. I think objectivity does come in here because we are dealing with skills.

Then English gives people access to the great body of past thought and writing in the language. This is inextricably bound up with questions of interests and values.

Finally, English as a subject should help people interact at a personal sense with individual writing. By definition, such interactions are subjective and personal.

Looking at all this, pity the poor English teacher who has to combine all this!

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting point on the inability to combine, LE.

At school, the question of Aboriginal responses to European arrival was ignored. Later when I looked at the evidence in my own area, I found fragmentary bits suggesting that the response pattern was more complex. Today there is more evidence still to indicate a complex reaction pattern.

One particular that I was insufficiently aware if when I first looked at material was the impact of disease. Introduced diseases such as flue or smallpox spread out from Sydney in a devastating wave well in advance of the Europeans. We, certainly I, do not know how this affected the capacity of Aboriginal groups to respond.

On Sydney v Melbourne, you actually started me wondering whether we can still speak of a "Sydney" culture, notwithstanding my own writings on the topic!

I will follow up on the meme.

Congratulations, by the way, on having your blog featured. Well deserved!

Lexcen said...

Interesting post Jim. In the study of anthropology, let's not forget the errors of the great Margaret Mead. See this link
I suppose what I mean to say is let's not be blinded by the experts.
I look forward to further insights from you.

Jim Belshaw said...

My word, Lexcen, that was a very useful response, and at two levels.

To begin with, I had completely forgotten the Meade case. Your point about not being blinded by the experts is well taken. I will put a postscript on this up on the main post.

At a second level,you pointed to another set of connections relevant to some thinking and writing I have been doing on the History of Australian and New Zealand Thought blog: the first post is here -

If we look at the Wikededia article we can see the link between Beaglehole and Freeman, while Freeman himself comes out of the NZ period I have been talking about.

You are definitely worth your weight in gum nuts!