Friday, January 23, 2009

Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 1

All human groups create their own internal realities.

I first saw this as a child mixing across groups - town, gown, farmer, grazier, Country or Labor, protestant and catholic. I have a part completed post on this that I may bring up some day because it explains much about my own attitudes.

This was a divided world. By accident of birth, I straddled groups. To mix, I had to learn to fit in to some degree with each group, tailoring my language and behaviour so as not to offend. A key to mixing was to talk to people about what interested them.

As Ramana said in a comment on a subsequently deleted post that dealt in part with particular language, it's "Us and them". That is, all groups define themselves to a degree by comparison to others.

Group internal realities are powerful and often poorly perceived by those within the group. They are simply there, accepted.

To a degree, all groups develop their own language based on shared experiences and common views. This language is developed in part through interaction, but is also often articulated by group leaders. At its extreme, the language becomes almost a code, a means of distinguishing the group from outsiders.

Without going into the distinctions between them, the disciplines of sociology and anthropology have developed tools and approaches for studying different groups. They seek to understand what the group is, its divisions, how it functions. Often, this requires them to live within the group, to become accepted to some degree.

The starting point in these studies lies in the separation of the observer and the observed. The group under study - town, village, tribe, club - is recognised as distinct. The aim is to understand its structure and behaviour.

I make this point because a lot of the political and social commentary that I read starts from one set of group assumptions and realities (the commentator's) that are then applied to and used to interpret or critique the behaviour of another group or groups with its (their) own sets of assumptions and realities.

We can see this play out in discussion on the Gaza conflict.

Both Hamas and the Israelis are driven by their own internal dynamics. This is reflected in the language they use. We can see something similar in the external commentary on the conflict with its varying focus on rights and wrongs.

In the one post I wrote on the conflict, Gaza, democracy and the question of world government, I began with the point that while I knew something of the history, I really did not understand the internal dynamics on both sides. This made it difficult to say anything really sensible.

We all know from experience that other groups are different in terms of their behaviour, yet we often make the implicit assumption that they should behave in the same way as us. We can't get beyond the fence set by our own perceptions. We end by critiquing external manifestations of complex internal group dynamics.

One of the things that has always puzzled me is why we don't use the knowledge gained from disciplines such as anthropology and sociology, as well as management writing on group dynamics, in a more effective way.

Our political leaders understand to some degree because they play to groups and group dynamics in seeking and holding power. But we rarely apply it in a policy sense.

The Americans are, belatedly, using anthropologists in Afghanistan. However, this is a means to an end in particular circumstances.

I think part of the problem lies in the nature of groups themselves, the way it causes people to look in and creates barriers to understanding.

To my mind, the central problem with President Bush's "War on Terror" is that it actually created the very thing that it was intended to destroy, an opposing force.

It is relatively easy in hindsight to point to policy errors. My argument is that the knowledge was available to pin-point some of those potential errors in advance. It simply wasn't applied.

I have to get to work. I will continue the discussion in my next post.

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